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The Doctor Is All In

Dr. Tony Alamo’s wildly varied career started with a simple realization: He’d misdiagnosed UNLV.

People  |  Apr 13, 2016  |  By Matt Jacob
Dr. Tony Alamo

Dr. Tony Alamo is the UNLV Alumni Association's 2016 Alumnus of the Year. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

The UNLV Alumni Association will present its annual awards program May 12. The program honors alumni from each college or school as well as the Achievement in Service and Silver State awards. This year, the associations top honor — the Fred C. Albrecht Outstanding Alumnus of the Year — has been renamed in honor of the UNLV graduate and longtime campus leader. Join us at this year’s event on May 12 for a night filled with inspiring stories of how UNLV impacted the lives of our honorees. The evening includes a red carpet-style arrival, cocktail hour, and hors d’oeuvres. For more information and to register for this free event, visit the Alumni Association website

The credentials and accolades are as impressive as they are lengthy: longtime respected Southern Nevada physician; onetime chief of staff at two local hospitals; former chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission; current chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission; tactical physician for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s SWAT division; first civilian recipient of Metro’s “Medal of Valor”; avid aviator and licensed pilot since the age of 19.

All of this — not to mention a deep affinity for his hometown university  — make Dr. Tony Alamo a worthy choice for the 2016 Fred C. Albrecht Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award.

But to truly appreciate the good doctor’s fascinating journey, you have to first return to its origins. You see, 35 years ago, the thought of Alamo someday being named UNLV Alumnus of the Year would’ve been as implausible as a physician serving as the head of a state’s gaming commission. That’s because Alamo never thought he’d be a Rebel — not in a million years.

Flashback to late summer in 1982. A recent graduate of Chaparral High School, 18-year-old Tony Alamo was packing his bags for the trip west to attend UCLA. A resident of Las Vegas since the age of 10, Alamo was a high-achieving student at Chaparral, where he developed a love for science.

Oh, he would one day return to his beloved hometown to practice medicine — that was a given. But in order to arrive at that destination, the soon-to-be pilot needed to fly the coop. UNLV was simply not an option, not for an academically gifted student like him. Or so he believed.

Not long after landing on UCLA’s campus, Alamo discovered two things: 1) Academically, the university offered everything that a pre-med student could hope for; and 2) it offered it to thousands of likeminded students.

Alamo liked the former; the latter, not so much.

After a few weeks attending classes in large auditoriums packed with more than 200 students and professors lecturing through microphones — professors who were virtually inaccessible both in and out of the classroom — Alamo concluded that being a small fish in a big pond wasn’t for him.

He made it through the first quarter, then returned home for winter break intent on charting a new, more intimate educational course. UNLV, he figured would be a stopover. “I was in the middle of the school year, so it was going to be hard to [transfer to] good schools midstream like that,” Alamo says. “So I said, ‘OK, let me matriculate at UNLV and get some prerequisites out of the way so I’m not wasting my time, and I’ll figure out where I’m going to go.”

Did he leave open the possibility of remaining at UNLV? “Absolutely not. Because that was failure to me.”

Alamo’s closed mind would soon open.

After enrolling for the spring semester, the pre-chemistry major learned that his classes at UNLV required the same textbooks he brought home from UCLA. Once the semester started, he discovered the courses—physics, calculus, inorganic chemistry—weren’t going to be easy. In fact, the only significant difference he saw was in the class sizes: around 30 at UNLV, as opposed to 200-plus at UCLA.

As Alamo prepared for midterms with around-the-clock study sessions, the epiphany hit: “I realized that UNLV was a good school, that it wasn’t ‘Tumbleweed Tech.’ I didn’t need to go anywhere.”

He did more than just stay. In his sophomore year, Alamo — along with some fellow science students who initially skipped town for college only to return home after finding the experience unsatisfying — started advocating for the university. As one of the founding members of the Student Ambassador program, Alamo and his friends visited area high schools and shared the virtues of UNLV with high-achieving students.

Their overarching message: When it comes time to chose where you want to continue your education, don’t make the same mistake we did and overlook your hometown university.

Shortly after the ambassador program launched, then-President Robert Maxson caught wind of it. “He put his arms around us, and all of a sudden, we had money, we had access, we had legitimacy, and the Student Ambassador program became something real and big,” Alamo said. “He used us as a marketing tool to go back into the community and keep the [top] academic kids here.”

In 1986, Alamo graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, then headed to University of Southern California’s School of Medicine. The fact he was admitted to that esteemed program confirmed what he already surmised: that a quality education could indeed be had at UNLV.

“I’ve got nothing but great things to say about my level of education,” Alamo said. “I got to USC’s School of Medicine, and USC recruits people from all over the world — undergrads from big, prestigious schools. And here was a little kid from UNLV.”

After earning his medical degree in 1991 and subsequently completing a three-year residency, Alamo — as he promised himself nearly a decade earlier — returned home to begin his practice. Today, he’s the medical director of the Alamo Medical Clinic, a multi-physician group in Henderson that specializes in primary care.

Although his numerous outside interests — be it Gaming Commission hearings or responding to incidents as one of the on-call physicians for Metro’s SWAT command — take him away from his medical office for stretches at a time, practicing medicine remains his primary passion. He’s still makes the rounds and sees patients daily.

“If you circle back to everything I do, it’s either because I grew up in a gaming environment — because my father was in gaming — or because of my medical degree,” Alamo said. “People might look at my career and say, ‘Oh, you do so many varied things,’ but the spokes of the wheel always go back to the hub.”

UNLV, of course, will always be one of those very significant spokes in Alamo’s life. And as he looks at his alma mater, he almost can’t believe what he sees.

“Back in January 1983, when I started to matriculate at UNLV, you had to be exposed to know that UNLV was a good school,” Alamo said. “Look what UNLV has done in the last 30 years: added a law school, a new medical school, the campus has doubled in size. Now it’s a strong university full of opportunities.”

Asked to drive home that very point to Southern Nevada’s current crop of high school students who are pondering their university options, UNLV’s 2016 Alumnus of the Year proudly travels back in time to his Student Ambassador days and delivers a strong message:

“Do not bypass UNLV. Don’t take it for granted. If there are reasons for you to go elsewhere, they should be viable reasons. If one of the reasons you’re going elsewhere is because you think UNLV is not academic enough or worthy enough of having you and will hold you back from bigger and better things, you’re blowing it, kid.

“Because at the end of the day, I have a baccalaureate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And that has made all the difference in my life.”