Family and friends will bury Ralph Engelstad Tuesday with a Mass at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church. But except for his family, few among the hundreds of people who will be in attendance really knew the 72-year-old builder and operator of the Imperial Palace on the Las Vegas Strip who died on Tuesday, Nov. 26.
Engelstad was an individualist, a loner, a scrapper whose private generosity will probably never be known.
Marketing specialist Connie Ross, who worked for Engelstad for more than a decade, had a unique position. Because Engelstad shunned publicity like the plague, Ross spent more of her work time keeping her boss’s name out of the news rather than in the limelight.
Engelstad was strongly opinionated and never hesitated to take a stand when he felt he was right
Much was said about a $1.5 fine that he was assessed by Nevada gaming regulators for hosting parties recognizing the birth date of Adolph Hitler. The party, he told friends, was because of his fascination with things German, not with the Nazi leader, as such. In order to put an end to the party publicity, Engelstad agreed to pay the fine.
But when gaming regulators in Mississippi told him that he couldn’t have a race book in his newly-built casino in Biloxi, he battled the decision right to the state supreme court in a losing effort.
In recent years, one of his many contributions to the University of North Dakota came under fire when he insisted that he would provide the $104 million to build what became the Ralph Engelstad Arena only if the school retained the sports nickname of “The Fighting Sioux.”
Engelstad himself was a “Fighting Sioux,” having been the goaltender on the school’s hockey team prior to his graduation with a business degree in 1954. He never quite understood the opposition of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to the school’s use of the name. He said he had great respect for the Sioux Tribe and even had a statue cast of Sitting Bull, the great Sioux leader who was described on a plaque as a “patriot, statesman, diplomat, warrior (and) prophet.”
When word of Engelstad’s passing spread through Grand Forks, N.D., people of the community began streaming into the arena that bears his name. Some brought flowers. Others signed a guest book with notations such as “Thanks Ralph.”
A large contingent of North Dakotans have already signed up to make the trip to Las Vegas for Tuesday’s funeral. By the weekend, some 174 plane reservations had been made.
There will be a memorial service at the arena on Dec. 6 when the university’s hockey team plays against St. Cloud.
Engelstad was born in Thief River Falls, Minn., and his wife of 48 years, Betty, grew up in East Grand Forks, Minn. He entered the construction business soon after graduating from college and came to Las Vegas armed with a federal housing contract. He bought and sold property until 1971 when he acquired a motel on the Strip and demolished the property to build his Imperial Palace which opened in 1979 with 650 rooms.
The property houses one of the finest automobile collections in the country, featuring many of the vehicles that were designed and built in pre-war Germany.
In 1996, he joined with his friend Bill Bennett in the construction of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in North Las Vegas. They sold the property to Speedway Motorsports two years later.
Betty Engelstad issued a statement last week indicating that she would continue to run the Imperial Palace with the assistance of the family’s longtime legal counsel, Owen Nitz, accountant Jeff Cooper, and the hotel/casino’s management team led by Ed Crispell.
In addition to his wife, Engelstad is survived by a daughter, Kris her husband, Tim and their two children, and two sisters, Mary Tulper and Phyllis Dooley.