Gaming pioneer, rancher, good friend, and beloved father and grandfather John J. Ascuaga passed away quietly at home on June 28, 2021 at the age of 96.
John and his twin sister, Rose, were born to Spanish Basque immigrants Jose and Marina Ascuaga on the family farm in Caldwell, Idaho on January 7, 1925. They were the youngest of the couple’s four children. Jose and Marina raised their family during the Great Depression, and while times were difficult, they instilled in their children the importance of faith, family, and a work ethic.
John attended high school in Notus, Idaho, where his yearbook fortuitously predicted: “He would own the biggest gambling den in Reno.” Following high school, he served a brief stint in the army and was stationed in Japan during the US Occupation.
A life-long believer and supporter of education, John received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from University of Idaho in 1951 and a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Washington State in 1952.
During college summers, John met Dick Graves while working as a bellhop at the Shore Lodge in McCall, Idaho. Graves admired Ascuaga’s energy and hired him as food manager for his Coeur d’Alene operations soon after he graduated. In 1954, when Idaho declared slot machines illegal statewide, Graves relocated his operations to Nevada, and Ascuaga followed. Graves named Ascuaga general manager of the Sparks location that opened with a 60-seat coffee shop and a few slot machines on March 17, 1955.
In the late 50’s John met his future wife Rose Ardans, a French Basque from Eureka, Nevada, and he was smitten instantly. He proposed on their third date, and they married June 15, 1958. They formed a true partnership for 62 years and were only parted by her death on Nov. 28, 2020. They had four children: Camille, John L., Michonne and Stephen.
The family resided in Sparks until 1970, when they moved to Jack’s Valley Ranch near Genoa. The 1,250-acre ranch was the perfect place for John to pursue his life-long passion of cattle ranching and the Hereford breed. John also ran cattle on property he owned in Smith, Nevada and Bridgeport, CA, and each November, he would lead a cattle drive from Bridgeport to Smith. Friends who joined him on these memorable treks said they never ate better and they enjoyed playing poker and No Peek’m long into the night.
By 1960, Graves wanted to retire, and he sold the Nugget to Ascuaga with a handshake. Ascuaga agreed to pay $3.75 million over twelve years, which he paid off in seven.
Ascuaga founded the Nugget’s reputation on friendly, personal service; varied and excellent dining; headliner entertainment; special events and of course, gaming.
A constant presence at the Nugget, Ascuaga was the affable and accessible face of his business. He walked the casino and restaurants in his signature cowboy boots multiple times a day, greeting guests with a smile and a handshake. He had the gift of making everyone he met feel special. When he met a guest a second time, he would likely know and use their name. One of his most endearingqualities was his ability to not take himself too seriously and to have fun. This was demonstrated in one memorable television ad campaign, where he sat in the hotel’s hot tub in his full business suit declaring it “perfect”.
He was just as accessible to his employees, many of whom received a special nickname that he would use throughout their tenure. He had a way of making employees feel like part of his family, always asking after their family members and keeping track of their children’s successes.
Ascuaga was also a visionary who helped pioneer special events as a drawing card for both local and regional patrons. Launched in 1989, The Best In The West Nugget Rib Cook-Off continues to be a hugely popular event every Labor Day.
Many long-time residents of Reno-Sparks remember with fondness the two performing elephants – Bertha and Tina (then later, Angel) – who were part of the Circus Room’s (later the Celebrity Showroom) roster of talent. The elephants were a key element in the family atmosphere that Ascuaga actively promoted.
Ascuaga was most proud of the annual scholarship program, which helped over 700 students from around northern Nevada attend college. He hosted a celebratory luncheon for the scholarship winners and their parents and proudly displayed the recipients’ photos at the casino. Ascuaga also supported Catholic Charities, providing holiday meals at St. Vincent’s Dining Room for nearly 60 years.
John is predeceased by his beloved wife, Rose Ascuaga: his parents Jose and Marina Ascuaga: sisters, Rose and Carmen, and brother, Frank. He is survived by his children: Camille Bressler (Mark), John L. Ascuaga (Teri Hiratani), Michonne Ascuaga (Dr. Kevin Linkus), and Stephen Ascuaga (Priscilla), grandchildren Gabriel, Noah and Miriam Bressler, Sean Ascuaga and Kai Hiratani, Jonathan and Rosie Linkus, Malia and Marisol Ascuaga, and numerous nieces and nephews.
Services will be held at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church, 3000 N Lompa Ln, Carson City, NV at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. A reception celebrating John’s life will take place at the Peppermill Resort Reno, from 5 to 7 pm that same day.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to one of John’s favorite charities: Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada, 500 E. 4th Street, Reno, NV 89512; Center for Basque Studies, UNR Foundation, University of Nevada Reno, Mail Stop 0162, Reno, NV 89557 or Bishop Manogue Catholic High School, John Ascuaga Memorial Scholarship Fund, 110 Bishop Manogue Drive, Reno, NV 89511.