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What I’ve Learned

Extended Interview with Coe Swobe

I got lucky when I graduated from law school at the University of Denver and was hired as Assistant United States Attorney. This was the 1950s, and there was only one U.S. Attorney in the entire state. My case with the most notoriety occurred when we prosecuted Lavere Redfield for tax evasion. Redfield was probably the biggest property owner in Washoe County. They said you could walk from the Reno city limits to the top of Mount Rose and not step off his property. I had him arrested and charged with tax evasion. At the time, federal prisoners were put in the county jail in Reno. I’ll always remember one time I went to the jail to check on Redfield. I found him sitting behind the sheriff’s desk, calling his stockbroker. The sheriff told me, “Well, Mr. Redfield needed some privacy and he had some business with his stockbroker.” Redfield was found guilty and served his time. When he returned to the area, he actually became an even more influential person who gave back quite a bit to the community.

When I got into politics, (Nevada graduate and longtime State Sen.) Bill Raggio had two words of advice for me: “Don’t drink, and always wear a tie.”

I was lucky enough to play a role in the preservation of Lake Tahoe through the creation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in 1969. Now, I know today TRPA is seen as too much of a bureaucracy, but back in the 1960s, the intent was simply to save the lake. (Nevada Gov.) Paul Laxalt and (California Gov.) Ronald Reagan knew they had to do something to save the lake. As Paul Laxalt said, “The lake is not going to go gray on my watch.” I was just lucky that Laxalt asked me to negotiate what became the bi-state compact between Nevada and California to preserve Lake Tahoe. It was a very important step for Lake Tahoe, and I think it’s done a lot of good for clarity and preservation of the lake. But I will also say that TRPA has gotten a bit of control bureaucracy-wise, and we’ve got to reel it in.

The bi-state compact was never a sure thing. Several times I thought it was lost. I traveled all over Nevada and California trying to convince people that it was the right thing to do. Ike Livermore (California’s Secretary of Resources under Reagan) was a tremendous help. He would say, “Wait a while, let me talk to my governor and you talk to your governor. It’ll all work out.” And he was right. Whenever we needed it, Reagan and Laxalt, who were both so charismatic and were both so convinced that this was the way to go, they’d just step forward and work their magic. If it hadn’t been for Reagan and Laxalt, it would’ve never happened.

I was in the State Assembly for four years and the State Senate for eight years. In addition to shepherding through the legislation that created the bi-state compact, I think the thing I’m most proud of occurred during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was a different time. There was great resentment against the veterans. When I served in the Air Force in Korea, there were such great opportunities for a returning veteran: they let you make up the credits you lost because of your service, they helped you find a job, they let you go back to school. The climate was much different in the 1960s, and I was so disappointed that my university and some members of its faculty were against offering many of these educational benefits to the veterans of Vietnam. So I introduced legislation to correct that. But luckily, before it even came to enacting that sort of legislation, (Nevada president) N. Edd Miller reversed the university’s policy of not offering these benefits to our returning veterans. It was a class move by a classy university president, who realized that even if you have problem with a nation’s policy, you don’t penalize the people who are simply doing their job.

I was a social drinker, dating back to my days as a student at the University of Nevada. When I was a practicing attorney and as a State Assemblyman and State Senator, I continued to drink. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. I drank progressively for 30 years. When I was 55, my family had enough. They held a good old-fashioned intervention. By then, about the only time I didn’t drink was early in the morning. So 13 of my family members and friends gathered in my home at 5:30 a.m. Each took a turn and told me how my alcoholism was destroying me, and my relations with them. It was one of the most important turning points in my life. I finally admitted I was an alcoholic. A great weight was lifted off my shoulders. I will be forever grateful to Janet, my wife, who gathered all of those wonderful people for that intervention. I haven’t had a drink since.

For about a dozen years after the intervention, I held weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at our home. It was during that time that I learned about the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers program. It was founded in 1985 by Ben Graham, another attorney recovering from alcoholism. Ben asked me to help him take the program statewide, which is funded by the State Bar. In 2001, the State Bar appointed me as statewide coordinator for the program. I travel regularly between Las Vegas and Reno. My job is to meet with lawyers who need help, or who have been referred to us by the State Bar. Our primary goal has always been to get help for lawyers before they wreck their lives and the lives of those around them. We try to get the alcoholic and drug addict to admit they have a problem. Denial can be very strong.

How many people have we helped over the years? Lots of them. Our work is confidential and mostly anonymous. I’ve gotten so much from the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers program. The more you help other people, the more it helps you.

Janet and I are both extremely proud of our daughters, Caryn, and Jackie. They’re University of Nevada graduates, and they’ve done well for themselves professionally. Caryn, in public relations in Reno, and Jackie, as a third grade teacher at Roy Gomm Elementary School in Reno, have both had wonderful careers. Our three grandchildren are a source of great pride. There’s Caryn’s daughter Clara, who is three, and Jackie’s children, Scott and Janelle, who both attend Reno High School. Not a day goes by where we aren’t at least talking on the phone, or going over to visit, or spending time together. I’ve been very blessed to have such a wonderful wife, and such great children and grandchildren. I truly believe that the joy of family is how interdependent your lives become.


From a conversation with Coe Swobe in July 2007 with University Communications senior editor John Trent. Swobe, 78, a native Nevadan, enrolled at the University of Nevada in 1947, and served in the Air Force from 1950-52 before returning to Nevada, where he graduated in 1954 with a degree in political science and history. Following graduation from the University of Denver School of Law, Swobe served as Assistant United States Attorney in Reno before moving to private practice. He was elected to the Nevada State Assembly from 1963-67, and served in the Nevada State Senate from 1967-75. He is a member of the Nevada State Senate Hall of Fame, served on the Board of Governors for the State Bar of Nevada from 1991-2000 and is currently an at-large member of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency – an organization he helped create through his legislative efforts in the 1960s.

 

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