LAS VEGAS – Former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a two-term moderate Republican whose tenure marked a prosperous era in a state now facing severe budget problems, died Thursday after falling from the roof of his Las Vegas home while making repairs. He was 73.
The predecessor to current Gov. Jim Gibbons was pronounced dead at University Medical Center, where he was taken after the fall, Coroner Mike Murphy said. Authorities were investigating whether the death was from natural causes or an accident.
Billy Vassiliadis, a friend and spokesman for the Guinn family at the hospital, said Guinn had been on the roof making repairs. He said Guinn's wife, Dema Guinn, found him and called 911. Police received the call just after 10:30 a.m.
"She lost her best friend this morning," Vassiliadis said.
Gibbons ordered flags at state buildings to be lowered to half-staff and issued a statement saying, "On behalf of all Nevadans, I extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends."
The state Senate minority leader, Bill Raggio, R-Nev., called Guinn "undoubtedly one of the best public servants who has ever served and one of the best governors we've every had."
"He was an example of someone who was committed to working with others across the party lines," Raggio said, choking on his emotions during a telephone interview. "He still had so much to offer."
Guinn, a former Clark County school superintendent and millionaire bank chairman, was a Democrat-turned-moderate Republican who served two terms as governor, from 1999 to 2007. His tenure marked a prosperous time in a state now facing huge tax deficits, record unemployment of 14.2 percent, and the most home foreclosures per capita in the nation.
The product of a migrant family that moved to Nevada from California's San Joaquin Valley, he married his childhood sweetheart, worked his way through college as a teacher, and won the support of casino bosses and Capitol visitors with silver-haired grace, affability and resolve.
"No matter where we went, my parents always made sure we went to school, even if it was a short period of time," Guinn told The Associated Press in 1999. "I knew full well I wanted to do something besides what my family had been doing all those years."
After his terms as governor, Guinn served on the board of MGM Resorts International, a Fortune 500 company and Nevada's largest employer.
"Kenny led a life of enormous accomplishment as a trusted leader both in the private and public sectors," said James Murren, company chairman and chief executive.
Nevada Press Association chief Barry Smith remembered Guinn giving an impromptu building tour and lesson in Nevada history to two tourists at the state Capitol. One of the men noticed Guinn's picture and did a double-take.
"Are you the governor?" he asked.
"That's what they tell me," Guinn replied.
"He was the right guy for the times, and he had the guts to stand up and do what was best for the citizens of Nevada," said Greg Bortolin, a former spokesman for Guinn.
Guinn was elected in 1998 in his first bid for statewide office, defeating Democrat Jan Jones while drawing criticism that he was the hand-picked candidate of powerful special interests. He departed ranked by Time magazine as one of the nation's best governors.
During his tenure in Carson City, he overhauled government agency operations, revamped budgeting and tax collections, pushed for a major student scholarship program, fought federal plans to bury nuclear waste in the desert outside Las Vegas and sought to diversify Nevada's casino-dependent economy.
Guinn also spearheaded the biggest tax increase in state history, then returned to residents $300 million in excess revenues.
In 1999, during his first term as governor, he pushed the Legislature to approve his Millennium Scholarship program that uses tobacco company settlement funds to help Nevada students pay for college at state schools.
After an economic slump that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Guinn was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2002, and pushed for a broader tax base and sought more funding for social services and education in the 2003 legislative session.
"He was a dynamic force in Nevada politics and our state's business circles for as many decades as I can remember, and he had an extraordinary influence on me," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas.
Berkley said she helped recruit Guinn as interim president of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a position he accepted for $1 salary.
Guinn was born in Garland, Ark., raised in Exeter, Calif., as the son of migrant fruit pickers. He once lived in a tin shack and attended almost 30 schools as his parents followed the crops.
He won a college football scholarship and received bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education from California's Fresno State University. He received a doctorate in education from Utah State University in 1970. He taught in Fresno and San Jose while doing graduate work at Stanford University.
He moved to Las Vegas in 1964, and became a planning specialist for the Clark County School District. In 1969, he was named superintendent of schools. He left the district in 1978 to join Nevada Savings and Loan. He later became bank chairman, president and chairman of Southwest Gas, and interim president at UNLV.
Kenny and Dema Guinn have two sons.
AP staff writers Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas, Sandra Chereb in Carson City and Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.