Las Vegas Sun

December 21, 2014

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Gragson, Las Vegas’ longest-serving mayor, dies

Almost everywhere you go in Las Vegas, Oran Gragson's influence can be seen.

A short stretch of U.S. 95 is named for the man who served as Las Vegas mayor from 1959 to 1975. The highway runs past the City Hall complex at 400 E. Stewart Ave., which was built under his leadership.

A local elementary school bears his name. Almost every city park and many of the recreational facilities were built during his years at the helm. Two regional agencies can trace their roots to plans he developed.

Oran K. Gragson, a visionary who never sought credit for his many accomplishments, died early Monday at a local hospice. He was 91.

Services for the city's longest serving mayor and Las Vegas resident of 69 years are pending. Palm Mortuary-Jones is handling the arrangements.

"It is difficult to go anywhere today in Las Vegas without feeling Mayor Gragson's influence," said longtime Las Vegas federal Judge Lloyd George, a friend and former downtown neighbor.

"He provided this city with the most marvelous leadership during a critical time. And he did all of the right things for all of the right reasons, never once seeking the credit for it."

Long after he left public service Gragson stayed engaged in the issues. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he was impressed when he attended Gragson's 90th birthday party and Gragson rattled off opinions on a bunch of projects on which the city was working.

"He knew everything we were doing -- it was amazing," Goodman said. "He was unique as mayor in that he wielded so much power and did so many things, yet he was humble and kind. He saw his role as that of a servant of the people."

Goodman said Gragson guided a city with a population of about 70,000, and his effectiveness made it possible for "a more fluid growth" when the population boomed in the late 1970s. The city's population today is more than 450,000.

Gragson, among his many accomplishments, helped bring to the attention of the Nevada Legislature the need for regional street planning. That led to the creation of the Clark County Regional Streets and Highway Commission, which today is the Regional Transportation Commission.

Gragson also was a key figure in forming the Regional Planning Coalition.

But he may best be remembered for his actions during a period of racial strife in the late 1960s.

As the civil rights movement was heating up nationwide, Gragson hired blacks, including a black liaison officer, at City Hall and held town meetings in predominantly black West Las Vegas to address concerns of constituents.

"He would walk into these town hall meetings practically alone -- this was a time when there were no big city staffs," said former Las Vegas Mayor Bill Briare, a friend of 40 years who immediately succeeded Gragson. "And he would give honest answers to the questions of angry constituents.

"Mayor Gragson was just a legendary figure in so many facets of local city government."

In 1983 the Southern Nevada Urban League honored Gragson with its Founders Award for helping minorities secure housing and employment and for initiating the Urban Renewal Committee and Human Rights Commission in the 1960s.

Born Feb. 14, 1911, in Tucumcari, N.M., Gragson attended high school in Texas, but his family left the state when the Dust Bowl hit.

He came to Las Vegas for the first time in 1932 to work on the Boulder Dam, but a year later returned to Mansfield, Ark., where he married farm girl Bonnie Henley on Dec. 21, 1934.

The couple returned to Southern Nevada on Christmas Day. He initially worked on a crew building a road from Searchlight to the dam. He later helped build roads in Caliente, Beatty and Goldfield. Bonnie was the cook for those work crews.

The couple moved to Las Vegas in 1937, where he managed the Boulder Inn and they later ran The Little Second Hand Store on Fremont Street. He opened North Main Furniture in 1949 and was elected mayor 10 years later.

During his four terms as mayor, Gragson served on the advisory boards of both the National League of Cities and the National Mayors Conference. He also was a longtime member of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board.

Gragson opted not to run for a fifth term at Bonnie's request. Instead, he became executive director of the Downtown Progress Association, a post he would hold until his retirement in 1986.

In 1982 the east-west highway was renamed for Gragson, the result of a citizens petition drive.

In addition to the downtown association post, he held several positions after he left City Hall.

In 1976 Gragson was appointed state chairman of President Gerald Ford's election campaign. In 1979 Gov. Bob List named Gragson to the State Public Works Board.

He also served on the Valley Hospital board of governors and, in the mid-1980s, was its chairman.

Gragson was a member of the First Baptist Church, Elks and Eagles Lodges and the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. With wife Bonnie he co-chaired the American Cancer Society's 1976 Cancer Crusade.

Gragson was a past chairman of the President's Committee to Employ the Handicapped.

In retirement Gragson was content to tend to his garden at his Las Vegas home while keeping up on area politics.

Survivors include his wife of 67 years Bonnie Gragson; a son, Ken; a daughter, Shirley; and several grandchildren. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

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