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A fond farewell to a true Vegas raconteur

For just a second, it was just like old times.

In the front room of the Havana Cigar Co., a small group of us were arguing politics, predicting the outcome of future races and solving the world’s problems as tendrils of steel-colored smoke rose toward the ceiling and dark wine swirled in glasses. From the back room, where the bar is located, the telltale sounds of karaoke burst forth. Everybody was laughing, telling stories, recalling jokes. Everybody was having a great time.

But it wasn’t just like old times. In fact, it won’t ever really be.

We were there to celebrate the life of Johnny Devito, who with his wife Eileen founded the cigar bar on Paradise Road that was a place to meet friends, celebrate milestones and mourn losses. Only this loss will be felt forever: Johnny Devito died of cancer complications on Thanksgiving Day. He was 65.

No one who met the man we all called Johnny will ever forget him. A real-life raconteur in a town full of posers, he was as comfortable in a room full of big political donors as he was in the back of his cigar bar, trading jokes and gossip with friends. Johnny hosted dozens of political fundraisers at his place over the years, for Democrats and Republicans alike. Political consultants and party activists were regular customers, along with cops, cowboys and even a journalist or two.

One of the great things about Johnny’s place is that you never knew who you’d run into on any given day — Rudy Giuliani, Tom Selleck, former Mayor Oscar Goodman, or maybe just a guy who wanted to be on the City Council someday. Everybody was welcome.

Johnny and Eileen were a constant presence at their establishment, greeting customers like old friends. One of his best friends — attorney turned NV Energy executive Tony Sanchez — summed it up like this in his eulogy: “Johnny Devito took a little bit of this town, but he gave a lot more to this town. … He provided the warmth and smiles to four walls in a strip mall and made a home away from home for us all.”

It just won’t be the same now, without the man who’d tell you a joke you’d probably heard before, laughing as heartily the 100th time as the first. Johnny was generous to a fault, always ready with a good story. His laugh was infectious, his smile impossible not to return, his faux-disdain for “crook lawyer politicians” — key parts of his clientele! — always on display.

We all loved Johnny, and we were all shaken when he was first diagnosed with cancer. But in true fighting spirit — he was a former Marine, after all — he came back strong, showing off a balding pate like a battle scar. At a fundraiser months ago to defray medical expenses, he mingled with guests, smoking and drinking as usual, as if to say, “What’s the worst that could happen? I could get cancer?” That was Johnny.

It seemed like he was going to live forever, but of course, no one does. After a funeral Mass, as he was laid to rest at Davis Memorial Park on busy Eastern Avenue, his priest, Rev. Max Olivia, said simply, “Go in peace. Johnny is with Jesus.” It’s a sure bet that Jesus and plenty of other others are laughing with Johnny, too.

For the rest of us, life will go on without our friend. There will be more nights at Havana, arguing politics, telling jokes, drinking wine and smoking those great cigars. Nights like the one this week, where, just for a moment, you’d forget it was a sad occasion that brought so many regular customers back to Havana. You could almost feel Johnny there, right in the thick of it, instigating, opining, joking. It was the kind of night, the kind of celebration, that he’d have loved.

Farewell to everybody’s friend, Johnny Devito. We’ll never forget him.

Steve Sebelius is a political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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