Check Out Our Sports Photo Galleries Contact Us
Al Gunderson: Thunder of the court silenced
by Andrew Barbano
May 15, 2010 | 1241 views | 1 1 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Former Nevada Chief Justice Al Gunderson passed way Thursday at his Las Vegas home after suffering a stroke.

Father Time has thinned the ranks of that magnificent small group of good people who in the 1970s made this region’s Multiple Sclerosis Society the top per-capita dollar producer in the United States. A few weeks ago, I reported the passing of Bette Drakulich.

Bette’s husband, Steve, a former Golden Gloves boxer from McGill stricken with the disease during World War II service, took over the chapter in 1969 when it had five bucks in the bank.

“Then Steve went out and got himself a governor elected,” one admirer told me long ago.

Mike O’Callaghan allowed use of the governor’s mansion for an annual Sunday barbecue that became the political event of the year.

I first met Al Gunderson in 1970.

My boss, former Las Vegas Review-Journal editor and future North Las Vegas Valley Times publisher Bob Brown, came rushing in to my office at the LV ad agency where I was a copywriter.

“Andy, Al Gunderson is due to tape a campaign commercial at Channel 3 and I can’t make it. You handle it.”

“I don’t know anything about his campaign,” I protested.

“Don’t worry about it. Just go hold his hand.”

That was the beginning of a 40-year friendship with Al and Lupe Gunderson.

Love him or hate him, and many did with equal passion, Elmer Millard Gunderson was one magnificent bastard. In a front page story, one Nevada Appeal reporter intentionally got his name wrong, calling him “Chief Justice Elmer Thunderson” in the lead line. Thunder he could and did.

In January 1971, Mr. Brown transferred me to Reno against my will. He told me to cut my hair and leased a corner office on the 13th floor of what is now Reno City Hall.

I had just ordered dinner at the old Eddie Mays Restaurant at Park Lane Mall when in walked newly elected Justice Gunderson. Al asked if I had plans for the evening. Fortunately, the answer was no.

I followed him to Steve and Bette’s house for an MS meeting in Steve’s living room. Thus began some of the best times of my life. We would dispose of business in an hour or less, then the fun began when we could talk politics.

Participants included former State Sen. Jim Slattery, R-Storey County, Reno City Attorney Bob Van Wagoner and former Nevada Assembly Majority Leader Gene Evans, D-Elko. All are gone and now Big Al has joined them at the neverending board meeting at Steve’s place in the sky.

A lot of what you have seen in the Barbwire over the past three decades was informed by the basics I learned from Al Gunderson. In his court days, he and Lupe invited a lot of us younger types to Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner at their lovely home in Kings Canyon west of Carson City.

Al shared masterful insight on how to analyze the politically powerful in terms of “their servitors — the law firms that do their bidding.”

He showed me how the game was played from the inside. He was not afraid of investigating corruption. He once let me review a scathing report that still curls what’s left of my hair.

Al Gunderson had the wisest political mind I ever dealt with. He was a master at forming the optimum solution to whatever problem was at hand. In politics, law and life, the perfect is rarely possible. Al’s mind went to the practical and did it with clarity and dispatch.

There were times when we disagreed, but there were far more when we laughed heartily.

A compliment from Gunderson would warm your heart. One night, we wrangled on the phone for two hours. Finally agreeing with my position, the judge conceded with a fatherly pat on the head, “Andy, you should have been an economist.”

Al’s monograph on judicial temperament, published by Southwestern University law school, became the basis for my 1992 analysis of Clarence Thomas which was reprinted by the Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Legal Journals. That column accurately predicted what kind of justice Thomas would become. I applied Gunderson’s analysis to Barack Obama several months ago.

Al Gunderson may be dead, but his writings and strong personality abide and thrive.

Adios, your honor.

Worth the price of admission

The Reno-Sparks NAACP holds its 65th Annual Freedom Fund Awards Banquet on Saturday at the Peppermill.

The keynote speaker will be Bob Butler, veteran multimedia investigative reporter at KCBS radio in San Francisco. His father lives here. 

Butler serves as vice president on the board of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists/AFL-CIO and was part of the team that won a Peabody Award for coverage of the huge 1989 California Loma Prieta World Series-stopping earthquake. For ticket and sponsorship information, go to or call 323-3677.

Barbwire stinger

From a reader named Clancy: “I was driving down Rock Blvd. and noticed a Legends SUV security vehicle with KANSAS plates. We give them STAR bonds and they don’t even register their vehicles in our state!”

Corporate welfare is obviously not just in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Be well. Raise hell.

Andrew Barbano is a 41-year Nevadan, second vice president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP and editor of E-mail Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
John A Riggs
May 20, 2010
Former Chief Justice E. M. Al Gunderson has left not just his family, Nevada, Las Vegas and Carson City, but the Nevada Jaycees, his extended family. He was a great Las Vegas Jaycee and mentor to all Nevada Jaycees. He received our highest world honor during his lifetime of being made a Jaycees International Senator.

When I was president of the Sparks Jaycees and the Nevada Jaycees, he helped me and all of Nevada Jaycees.

We all loved him - good by Al.
Featured Businesses