There was a time in this great land when a function that was vital to the populace would find itself on the ropes, financially in this Saturday morning’s yarn, and rather than crying to state legislatures and selling out to the federal system, or hyping up a shaky stock offering or pruning down their loyal employees’ wages, they would roll up their sleeves and do something about it – with dignity, honor, and a little bit of fun.
And that’s the way it was in the late 1940s at a little business down at the corner of Mill and Kirman Streets – the original brick building built in 1904 can still be seen amid the sprawl. The Washoe County Hospital has roots back to 1876, when 40 acres of the Hatch ranch were purchased for a hospital and a poor farm. At mid-century its fiscal pulse, respiration and temperature were approaching Code Blue – the (three, then) County Commissioners were noodling with the eventuality of closing the whole thing down.
A knight in shining scrubs rode into town from Arizona – his name was Clyde Fox – and he took over as the hospital’s administrator. One of his first acts was to create a body that had been successful for him in other hospitals: an auxiliary, composed of community ladies and doctors’ wives. His auxiliary rapidly grew to 500 members and old newspaper clips include the movers-and-shakers of our towns. I was surprised to see my own grandmother in a newsclip, shaking her ancient booty in some hen party at the Twentieth Century Club, all in support of the Washoe Hospital Ladies Auxiliary.
“We shall raise money,” they decreed, and in the year fuzzily identified as 1951 they gathered on a sunny Saturday in Pickett Park across from the hospital, and held a rummage sale. The name was “Tombola Day” – I’ve references to tombola as some sort of salsa bingo game, and/or a Central American fiesta. Tents were set up for the merchandise, the hospital brought some grub over and they had a few booths for kiddies – a “Wheel of Fortune” sort of thing, a Fortune Teller and a Wishing Well. They went all day, sold out, made a few bucks for the hospital and had a ball.
Well, next year, it’s going to be a little different, someone said, and it was. The rummage had a little greater variety, the children’s games were expanded a bit, and a school and a church were brought in to provide a few tunes. Someone brought a barbecue, and recall if you will an outdoor grill was not an amenity in everyone’s home in the early 1950s – most were homemade from 55-gallon drums with little ostentation. But – they had hot food. And here I’ll run a few years together from newspaper accounts: Each year brought a little more entertainment – for the kids and the adults. At some point a barbecued lamb became a fixture at the event and remained so for many years – John Iratcabal arriving the night before, digging a pit and starting the little creature’s journey to between two slices of bread the following afternoon (the lambs on several occasions, maybe more, were courtesy of John Ascuaga or Bill Harrah.) And, the piece de resistance of every Tombola Day was a raffle for a little house, an A-Frame of about 10 by 10 feet square and 10 feet to the roof peak, complete with plumbing and electricity, ready to be occupied as a hunting cabin or backyard playhouse. Washoe Med’s (its later name) maintenance crew, headed by superintendent Edin Sontag built the little houses and they’re still collectors’ items seen occasionally around town.
Tombola Day grew, few in town didn’t visit it, and what a show – great parking, food, entertainment from schools, churches, the University, Tink’s Municipal Band, an early Day with Lash Larue and the Singin’ Cherokees, later whoever was playing downtown in an impromptu visit (a youthful Bill Cosby sticks out in my mind, I’d guess this in the early ‘70s, and no kid went home without a snapshot of him or herself and the Cos, often on his shoulders – what a terrific friend he is to kids of all ages.) A couple of Harrah’s museum cars showed up one year including a fire truck with a Dixieland band; not to be outdone by all that was John Ascuaga, who dispatched Bertha & Tina, hoisting a few Nugget showgirls and some bolder volunteer celebrants with their trunks. Reno Fire Department parked a couple of engines for the kids to climb all over, and Bill and Moya Lear, who were among the strongest supporters of the hospital and the League, delighted all by landing a LearAvia medivac helicopter for ground tours. (This in 1974, a joint venture with Reno’s Aids Ambulance. The semipublic Careflight air-evac service would come seven years later.) Some thought the helicopter looked a lot like a French Alouette III, but Bill Lear liked to put his own name on things.
Tombola was Reno’s big summer show, akin to the Harrah Swap Meet with many similar attractions – both bespoke a great time in our town, when kids were safe riding bikes on their own to Pickett Park and none, rich or poor, went without a hot dog, coke, and cotton candy; a tour of a fire truck, touching the snoot of one of the Nevada White Hat riding team’s palominos, ringing the bell at the Strongman Hammer booth and leaving with a Hartford Insurance fireman’s helmet – local businesses’ participation grew steadily over the years.
And for the adults? Lash Larue and the Singin’ Cherokees, can’t beat that. A fashion show. Great food and company; a late-afternoon hoedown, I think a cold brew or two might have found its way onto City property, and a sense of getting something done for the community.
Tombola Day went away about 1984. It was a point of municipal pride for three decades. Could we carry off another one in theses times? Maybe.
This note cannot go unpublished: On July the second of 1974, a bold step was taken at Washoe Med: Smoking was banned on the entire fourth floor, staff, visitors and patients alike, no exceptions. Have a good week, Remember D-Day, and God bless America.
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© RGJ originally appeared May 2007
Fire truck photo © Harrah’s