A Tribute to George Gund III

George Gund, III
May 7, 1937 – January 15, 2013

By Hal Cannon, Western Folklife Center Founding Director

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George Gund III. Photo by Robert Davis.

George Gund III, friend and longtime supporter of the Western Folklife Center, passed away January 15 in Palm Springs, California, where he had been suffering from stomach cancer. He will be missed.

George was a great friend to many of us and it is fair to say that without his support there would not be a Western Folklife Center today. In 2013 the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is such a well-known and beloved event that it seems as it if it has always been here. Things were different in 1984 when we were out trying to raise funds to start it. We approached many of the corporate sponsors behind rodeo and other cowboy events and virtually all of them laughed us out of the room at the idea of cowboys reciting poetry. Individual supporters were no easier to find. George came forward as the only individual contributor that first year and wrote a check. He saw the promise of the idea and was willing to take a chance.

He joined our Board of Trustees in 1986, making him the longest-tenured board member in the organization. In recent years his son, George Gund IV (Crunchy), joined the board as well. For many years George hosted legendary board retreats at his ranch in Lee, Nevada, or at one of his homes in Palm Springs and on Stuart Island in the San Juan Islands. When the Western Folklife Center had the opportunity to purchase the old Pioneer Hotel out of bankruptcy, George bought the building on our behalf. In recognition of all he did to create a home for the organization, we named the G Three Bar Theater after his brand.

Today, there have been articles published about George all over the country. In Cleveland, his hometown, he is being remembered as former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and as a patron of the arts. In the Bay Area, his adopted home, he is being remembered as a founder of the San Francisco Film Festival and the professional hockey team, the San Jose Sharks. In most articles people talk about his world-class eyebrows, his unconventional ways, his Bohemian nature. But what all these various articles prove is how wide his interests were, how many friends he had, and how generously he supported the things and the people he loved.

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George Gund III with William Matthews at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. By Sue Rosoff.

George helped several cities become better places. Here in Elko we know yet another aspect of George that few of his urban friends had the chance to experience. He was an avid rancher and attended the Nevada Cattlemen’s meetings each year. He was always interested in cowboy traditions but he also wanted to know the latest about breeds and new ways of grazing. George was a horticulturalist. He loved taking people to his gardens in Palm Springs and picking exotic citrus fruits as they strolled the grounds. He had an extraordinary eye for art. His collections of Asian arts, Northwest Indian wood carvings, and western drawings and paintings are all unique. He did not buy art for investment. He collected art that he loved.

George loved ordinary people from bellhops to hockey-playing kids to young filmmakers. He was deferential to everyone. Often people had no idea of his wealth. He did not put on airs. He loved cowboys and ranch people and was involved from the beginning in the Folklife Center’s attempts at ”grass roots diplomacy” through international cultural exchanges with ranching people around the world. He not only funded some of these efforts but acted as photographer and friend during fieldwork documenting Australian drovers and South American gauchos.

It seems that most people who knew George have at least a few stories about him. Every time you were with him, the occasion turned into an adventure. Usually he didn’t initiate the adventure so much as bring it out of those who are adventurous at heart. I’d like to tell a couple of personal stories about George. The first is mine; the second is from my dear wife Teresa who now serves as a Trustee of the Western Folklife Center.

When I was traveling to Australia to find bush poets to bring to the Gathering, George offered to take me Down Under on his plane. Just getting off the ground was an adventure but finally we got underway.

After a long day of flying over the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye could see, George told the pilots we would land at the Marshall Islands for a night of rest and refueling. We landed on the atoll island of Majuro, and the next morning, on our way back to the airfield from our hotel, we made a quick visit to the village museum. We got to talking with the woman at the desk who had lived on the Islands for many years and learned that she was originally from my hometown of Salt Lake City. She grew up in a neighborhood where I had gone to a yard sale just the day before. When I told her that, she looked at me point blank and asked, “Did you buy my cowboy piano?” Sure enough I had. I was stunned to think the world could be so small. I glanced at George to read his reaction but he didn’t even twitch one of his voluminous eyebrows. Later I asked him why he didn’t seem surprised. I realized in his answer that George was constantly running into people he knew all over the world. This coincidence didn’t seem out of the ordinary. George’s world was a small world. By the way, that cowboy piano that I purchased those many years ago has been donated to the Western Folklife Center and can be heard every year at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the Pioneer Saloon under the great care of pianist Dave Bourne.

utf-8''_0100This from Teresa: “For our honeymoon, George offered Hal and me his cabin on Stuart Island. He met us at Dutch Harbor to take us over to Stuart on his needle-nose yacht, the Lambada. It was the day of the Russian coup and the San Jose Sharks had just brought a player over. The player’s family was still in Russia and George was terribly worried that they would not be able to get out. As we headed back to Stuart Island, George was talking on his satellite phone to Russia, but being George, he was also fishing, and he caught a big salmon. I remember him on the nose of the Lambada, trying to juggle the phone and the fish and the international conversation… Oh, there are so many more stories, and all of them, at their heart, revolve around his great spirit and generosity and concern for others. I just can’t imagine the world without him.”

George was one of the most original people Teresa and I have ever met. We feel a great sense of loss at his passing. Our hearts go out to his family and our love to all those who loved George.

Please share your own stories and memories of George in the comment section of this blog.

Read George Gund’s obituary in the Elko Daily Free Press.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to one of several charities, including the Western Folklife Center. To facilitate such contributions we have established the George Gund III Memorial Fund. If you wish to make a memorial donation in George’s honor, please send it to: George Gund III Memorial Fund, Western Folklife Center, 501 Railroad Street, Elko, NV 89801, or call Linda Carter at 775 738-7508, ext. 222.

11 responses to “A Tribute to George Gund III

  1. I remember an adventure on the Sunday after the Gathering one year, when someone (Hal and Teresa, I think, enthusiastically seconded by George) got the idea to go to a hot springs outside Wells. We loaded up into a couple of vehicles, one being George’s, and managed to find the place in the dark and the snow, and had a nice soak. On the way out, though, George’s truck almost got stuck crossing a little creek and we thought some of us might have to walk out. Never a dull moment. Here’s to George and his contagious sense of adventure, and his love of the ordinary joys of life.

  2. In 1973, my parents Maya and Dick Miller, of Washoe Valley, were 2 of 3 Nevadans on Nixon’s Enemies List. The third? George Gund, who had a big ranch in eastern NV and presumably also funded McGovern, or did something else subversive.

  3. The piano story was a favorite of my late husband, Bob Vaughan, who told it to me when we first married in 1997.

  4. What a fabulous tribute, and what heroic eyebrows.

  5. Chester McLemore

    One of the early years I attended the Gathering solo….do not remember the year, but I will never forget the bushier eye browed man who was setting up chairs in one of the convention rooms. I volunteered to help and he and I sat up a small room where “want to be” poets were to do their readings. Never in a thousand years would I have guessed that “George” , who I thought was just another volunteer?….was also the individual who donated the Hotel? Affer that he always said hello.I knew him from afare. I knew he was a board member….but even to this day ?? I only wish I had known he had a home in Palm Springs ? I feel fortunate to have met him.

  6. Over the years it has been years it has been my incredible pleasure to come over and photograph the Cowboy Poetry Gatherings – and if I saw George, I always tried to get a couple of photos of him – he is so much of the life blood of the Western Folklife Center and the Gathering – plus he had the most awesome eyebrows I still have ever seen.
    The piano story doesn’t stop there for me. After I’d moved to the Marshall Islands, Hal teased me with “Have I ever told you about Majuro and the Cowboy Piano?” It ended up that the woman whose piano Hal bought, was, at the time, printing all the Joachim deBrum glass plate negatives that I would, decades later, take on to digitize to save the images! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when my worlds collide – but when you’re on a tiny piece of coral in the middle of the Pacific – it seems like a pretty darn small world. Thanks George for making so much happen in so many venues!

  7. ps – Thanks Hal and Teresa for your stories and Hal for your wonderful piece about George.

  8. UNR graduate here who misses Nevada every day. I did not know George, but hope to meet him when my turn comes.

    I hope that everyone knows that George has a Wikipedia page and that we all can help keep it filled with great stories such as these. Here is the page:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gund_III (or, if we are HTML enabled click here.

    Sorry to hear about the McGovern thing though.

  9. I first met George at a Nevada Cattlemen’s Association meeting back in the 1970s, when Gwendolyn Clancy and I were making our documentary “A Cowhand’s Song.” He helped us get that film made and distributed. In the decades since, I crossed paths with him at the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Association meetings, at the San Francisco International Film Festival and lots of other places.

  10. I met George in the early 80’s before I (and I believe he) was intimately involved with Cowboy Poetry at a local Mexican dance held at the Elko fairgrounds.

    I was doing security for the sheriff’s dept and he was there in a San Jose Shark jacket. Making conversation, I told him my son and his friend were Shark fans and I was surprised to see a Shark jacket in Elko.

    He proceeded to tell me that he owned the team and talked at length about them. I was telling myself (glad I kept my mouth shut) ya sure, and I owned half the Padres; thinking, a person of that caliber wouldn’t be talking to me.

    Well… some time later in the dance he stopped me saying I’m glad I caught you, I have some things for your son and his friend and he handed me some sports/Sharks memorabilia.

    Somehow I knew at that moment he was who he claimed to be and, even though it didn’t show, I was a little embarrassed about my earlier thoughts. I thanked him and we talked for a while longer.

  11. I built George Gunds bed; kitchen and Cherry library when he used to live next door to Paul Newman , in NYC , about 20 years ago.
    They were up on the upper west side, across from the reservoir. Only met him once, discussing his kitchen. Seemed nice enough.
    Never got any pix because the general contractor, Jack Kaye, died of a diabetic coma, up in Canada during the job.

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