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Imperial Palace owner saw opportunity in early Las Vegas

Before Ralph Engelstad was a gaming executive and namesake for multiple Las Vegas institutions, he was a Minnesota-born, North Dakota-taught collegian trying to woo a girl named Betty from his best friend's grips.

The result was a 54-year marriage and a family inside joke that speaks volumes about Ralph Engelstad's character.

"My son says his grandpa saw an opportunity, and he never stopped recognizing opportunities," said Kris Engelstad McGarry, Ralph and Betty Engelstad's only child.

Ralph Engelstad viewed Las Vegas as the ultimate opportunity for a construction businessman such as himself when he moved here in 1961. He built his name and fortune brick-by-brick, most notably with the development and ownership of the Imperial Palace, 3535 Las Vegas Blvd. South.

Despite controversial hiccups related to personal interests, many agree that Ralph Engelstad's good name is rightfully attached to some of his philanthropic pursuits.

The Engelstad Family Foundation oversees about $600 million in assets, and it's estimated that about $100 million of it has been invested in Southern Nevadan projects and pursuits.

The Opportunity Village Ralph & Betty Engelstad Campus, 6050 S. Buffalo Drive; the Ralph & Betty Engelstad School of Health Sciences at the College of Southern Nevada; and the Boys & Girls Club of Las Vegas Ralph & Betty Engelstad Clubhouse, 3540 Cambridge St., bear their names.

The Ralph Engelstad Arena at his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, extends the moniker's reaches.

Ralph Engelstad died of lung cancer in 2002, and millions have been donated by the foundation to the Nevada Cancer Institute and other lung cancer research.

He is survived by his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.

As loudly as their contributions have spoken, the family maintains that Ralph and Betty Engelstad hardly strayed from their roots.

"He was in his mind and heart a blue-collar contractor," Engelstad McGarry said.

Her parents were descendants of farmers who grew up in rural Minnesota and North Dakota. They met during Ralph Engelstad's college days and married in 1954. He had a shiny new business degree, Engelstad McGarry said of her father, and he had interests elsewhere.

"My dad came through (Las Vegas) first in the mid-'50s as a land surveyor with the government," she said. "He recognized there was a much longer building period here than in North Dakota, and there was much more of an opportunity here."

Ralph Engelstad went to Las Vegas ahead of his wife and daughter and helped construct tract housing in what is now North Las Vegas. The family got an early taste of namesake status then when new streets were christened Betty Lane, Kris Circle and Engelstad Street.

"I grew up running around those streets," Engelstad McGarry said. "That's where Las Vegas lived."

Ralph Engelstad had commercial properties and bought land rapidly.

He owned the North Las Vegas Airport in the 1960s until he sold it to Summa Corporation through Howard Hughes, said Mark Hall-Patton, administrator for the Clark County Museum System.

Ralph Engelstad forged ahead with real estate endeavors in the 1970s, when he bought a small motel called the Flamingo Capri, which was a center-Strip property, and the Kona Kai Inn, which was where the first motel travelers from California met.

"He bought it and built more units because he understood the process of building," Engelstad McGarry said. "He didn't know anything about hotels or warehouses but he knew the construction concept. He'd hang on to it and see what happened."

Ralph Engelstad leveled the Flamingo Capri and constructed the first Imperial Palace hotel and casino. A second property is in Biloxi, Miss.

The Las Vegas property proved to be his centerpiece asset.

"At that time, it was the center of the Strip," Engelstad McGarry said. "It was directly across from Caesars Palace. You couldn't get more prime real estate."

The hotel-casino also was the place where Ralph Engelstad's reputation was blemished.

Rumors suggested that he was a Nazi sympathizer who had a collection of Nazi-era war memorabilia on site and Adolf Hilter's car among the gaming executive's extensive car collection. In February 1989, Ralph Engelstad was fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Commission regarding the accusations and two reported birthday parties for Hitler years earlier.

"He's gotten more negative PR than was ever justified," Hall-Patton said. "He did good in areas others maybe weren't."

The alliances to Nazism were never confirmed.

"It's a big Vegas rumor so far as I know," said Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada. "There are always a lot of rumors about a lot of people out there. Nothing would surprise me in terms of a rumor, and a lot would surprise me in terms of reality."

Engelstad McGarry said her father didn't give much fanfare to the allegations.

"He never wanted any notoriety," she said. "I don't think people knew him, and I actually think that was fine with him."

Green said his down-to-earth attitude is still talked about.

"He remained very much personally involved, and success didn't go to his head," he said. "I was told a story of how he bought a limo at one point and he used to drive it to fast-food drive-throughs for his lunch. He considered himself an average person and understood the average person."

He was an average guy around the Imperial Palace, Engelstad McGarry said.

"Nobody was allowed to call him Mr. Engelstad; you had to call him Ralph," she said. "He was very approachable. If you gave him a good hard day's work, that's all he asked for, and he'd be your friend and back you."

Engelstad McGarry said she was astounded by the number of former employees in attendance at his funeral.

Ralph Engelstad was involved with Imperial Palace up to his death, and work was his hobby.

"He didn't know how to do anything in a small way or relaxing way," Engelstad McGarry said. "When he started collecting cars, it started with a truck that reminded him of his dad, and at the end of the year, it was 600 cars."

For a man whose motor was always running, his wife, Betty, was the steady fuel, Engelstad McGarry said.

"My mom is somebody who would be happy anywhere she was," she said. "She is somebody who is always steady and constant and calm."

Betty Engelstad is devoted to her faith and shies away from the limelight. She and Engelstad McGarry serve as trustees for the foundation.

"The things he accomplished for his family gave him pride," Engelstad McGarry said. "I don't think he was very concerned with how he's remembered. He was a happy guy when he was just toiling around every day."

Contact Centennial and Paradise View reporter Maggie Lillis at mlillis@viewnews.com or 477-3839.

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