Wilbur Faiss, a decent man, a family man, will be missed

The last time I saw Wilbur and Theresa Faiss, the happy couple were stepping gingerly into Lou’s Diner for breakfast on Sunday morning.

It was a fitting setting. Regulars at the Decatur Boulevard café know it as a throwback to a time when Las Vegas was a much smaller place. Although they managed to live well into the new century and modern Las Vegas, Wilbur and Theresa belonged to that earlier era.

As a state senator, Wilbur was ahead of his time. He raised his voice for women’s rights and made important contributions to Nevada, but he probably will be best remembered for his most successful role as Theresa’s husband. In the state that invented quickie divorce and unabashedly celebrates the art of the easy hookup, Mr. and Mrs. Faiss in 2012 celebrated their 79th wedding anniversary and were recognized as the longest-married couple in the country. (His secret to a successful marriage: “You’ve got to give and take.”)

Theresa died later that year at 97. Wilbur, a small-town gentleman who in recent months had resided with family in Carson City, died Saturday at age 102.

Published reports have marked his passing, but the press is a strange animal. For the most part it doesn’t know what to do with a truly decent public servant. We balance high praise with heated invective upon political powerhouses. We take an undeniable delight in vilifying scandalous senators and corrupt commissioners. But give us a good family man whose sense of decency was exceeded only by his humble nature, and we’re as lost as chimps with a calculus quiz.

Decent and humble, that was Wilbur Faiss. He couldn’t play in a band because he refused to toot his own horn.

The father of longtime gaming attorney Bob Faiss and casino industry veteran Don Faiss, Wilbur had to be coaxed into running for the Legislature. Not only did he win election, but he also stood up in the state Senate for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the measure was defeated in the Assembly, it emerged from the Senate thanks in part to the wisdom Wilbur had gained from his marriage.

He told his colleagues, “Throughout my adult life, my wife has worked at my shoulder — not one step behind — but beside me. We are co-equals, and it is only right that this partnership be recognized in constitutional law. Equality between men and women cannot, must not and will not be denied.”

He was right and kept up the good fight for the better part of a decade before returning to private life.

When I interviewed him in 2011, he was turning 100 but remained proud of the trust people had placed in him when they elected him. He was also mindful of that moment in Nevada history when some legislators tried to stand on the right side of equal rights for the sexes.

“I thought the women were equal to men,” he recalled. “When I was a young lad in Illinois, women weren’t allowed to vote. They just weren’t allowed to vote. … I was brought up not to be against everybody. What was Nevada called, ‘the Mississippi of the West?’ I never had that problem. … When I went into the Senate I was strictly independent. … Usually a first-time senator is supposed to sit, look good and do nothing. I went right to work.”

In a speech on Nevada Legislative Alumni Day just a few months ago, Faiss once again sounded the call to action.

“As a nation, we still have to finish the job of achieving true equality,” he said. “I hope to see the day when every American is guaranteed the same fundamental rights.”

The voice of a decent and humble public servant has gone silent, but it’s reassuring to know that Wilbur and Theresa Faiss are together again.

As always, they’ll be walking side by side.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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