To better understand how the Engelstad Family Foundation came into being — and why it focuses so much of its philanthropic attention on educational scholarships, assistance to the disabled, and medical research, a brief history lesson is in order.
Not surprisingly, Kris Engelstad McGarry, trustee of the foundation and daughter of Ralph and Betty Engelstad, the couple who set the stage for the creation of the foundation that has donated nearly $335 million in Nevada since 2002, is the perfect teacher.
She has played a critical role in the foundation becoming a key benefactor to UNLV, Three Square Food Bank, Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, Miracle League of Las Vegas, Spread the Word Nevada, Project 150, Opportunity Village, The Smith Center, and so many others through scholarships and grants.
Now the well-known face of the foundation, Engelstad McGarry tells you that neither her father, who he passed away in 2002 at the age of 72, nor her 86-year-old mother had any inkling growing up that they could one day give money away.
“They came from working class, humble backgrounds,” she said of her parents, who were both born in tiny Minnesota farming towns. They would later meet in nearby Grand Forks, home of the University of North Dakota.
Had it not been for a scholarship to that university, Engelstad McGarry said her father might well have spent his life doing work similar to his high school summer job — assembling steel buildings on farms.
Being awarded an athletic scholarship changed the course of his life.
“College wasn’t going to happen without that scholarship to play hockey,” she says. “He came from a family without any disposable income — both my parents did.”
Though good enough as a goalie to be drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, Ralph Engelstad set out to use his business degree, founding his own construction company, Engelstad Construction, in the 1950s. He also conducted a whirlwind romance with bank teller Betty Stocker, marrying her in 1954.
“He made some apartment buildings in North Dakota but it didn’t take him long to realize that the climate in North Dakota didn’t give him much building time,” said Engelstad McGarry, adding that during a trip to Las Vegas, his father saw many construction possibilities.
On to Las Vegas
The Engelstads moved to Las Vegas in 1959, the same year his construction company secured construction contracts to build FHA homes. No longer was money a problem.
"My mother never thought she’d leave Grand Forks and she never thought she wouldn’t have to work,” Engelstad McGarry said.
By 1990, Engelstad was worth an estimated $300 million. He had become one of the largest landowners in the U.S. and was involved in numerous successful business ventures, including the 1971 purchase of the Flamingo Capri Motel on the Las Vegas Strip.
He added a casino to the motel and in 1979 he renamed it the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. Engelstad, one of the few independent operators on the Strip, was the first to establish a drive-through sports book and the first to establish an on-site medical clinic for guests and employees at the casino.
The Imperial Palace — it was sold to Harrah’s three years after Engelstad’s death — was one of the first large scale businesses to hire the disabled. About 13 percent of the employees had some sort of disability.
“He saw in them people who wanted to work and he gave them the chance,” Engelstad McGarry said. “He was always an advocate for the underdog.”
(By 2018 the Engelstad Family Foundation had donated $22 million to Opportunity Village, which serves adults in Southern Nevada with intellectual and related disabilities, and $3 million to the Blind Center of Nevada.)
An avid reader of newspapers, Engelstad often would send his daughter, Kris, out to contact individuals he read about who had suffered some misfortune. Sometimes, Engelstad McGarry recalled, she would come home and find people staying at their house because they had nowhere else to stay.
“My father would help people out but they had to agree not to say who helped them,” she said.
Engelstad opened a second Imperial Palace resort in Biloxi, Mississippi, and in 1996 he was co-developer of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Before he died six years later, he and his wife set up the Engelstad Family Foundation, formalizing and increasing the kind of charitable giving the family had done behind the scenes.
Engelstad’s death from lung cancer, coupled with Engelstad McGarry’s two bouts with cancer, served as a catalyst for many gifts to health care organizations, including more than $20 million to the now closed Nevada Cancer Institute. “It’s a disease that affects too many people,” she said.
Education, Engelstad McGarry noted, has been stressed since the foundation began in 2002.
“My dad saw how it could change a life, how it changed his life,” said the UNLV graduate (’92 BA Psychology, ’95 Bachelor of Social Work), stressing that it gives people hope for a better future. “It can change an entire family tree.”
In 2009 the Engelstad Scholars Program at UNLV was established by the foundation. The $12.6 million gift is the largest active scholarship in the university’s history and the largest active endowment in the history of the Nevada System of Higher Education.
Robert Vargas, ’17 BS Biology, is one of the program’s beneficiaries, first as an undergraduate and now as a UNLV School of Medicine student.
“Being a dual recipient for the Engelstad Scholarship has allowed me to pursue a career I had never fathomed for myself,” he said. “I was a first-generation college student coming from two parents that immigrated from Mexico to pursue a better future for their children.
“Currently, I have interests in family medicine and/or OB-GYN that I hope can help fill a need within our community that has given so much to me. I am truly thankful for wonderful donors like the Engelstad Foundation that have truly allowed me to reach my version of the American Dream.”
As for Engelstad McGarry, she said, “I have the greatest job ever. I give away hope. There’s no greater job on Earth.”