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What happens in Vegas can define a lifetime

What just happened?  It was December 1989.

I was your typical “small-town girl,” book smart, yet OH SO green.  I was a newlywed, dutifully following her husband nearly 2,000 miles across the country to the land of his culinary dreams, Las Vegas, and his new job in a brand new resort, The Mirage Hotel and Casino.

Just three weeks earlier, I had received my master’s degree in College Student Personnel. My goals were set: more school for my Ph.D in journalism then snagging a comfortable, secure, tenured faculty role — somewhere. I was working with what I knew at the time: sage advice and guidance from two mentors. I respected Joel Rudy, my former boss and the Dean of Students at Ohio University. He said I would make a great dean someday. Years before that, a J-school professor, Melvin Helitzer, had convinced me to try my hand at public relations and advertising. Mel was a gem, a genuine 1960s “mad man” who taught a wildly popular comedy writing workshop. He offered me an apprenticeship writing promo copy for his students’ stand-up comedy gigs. That was fun, too. So combining my journalism degree with a touch of student affairs topped off by a Ph.D sounded just fine to me.

Yet in that moment, one week before Christmas, my prospects were bleak.  Maybe it had something to do with the 3-day snow-and-ice filled odyssey of the road trip cross country.  Or the dire warnings from Dad and Uncle Bob (one a cop, the other the county sheriff) that working in a casino meant you rubbed shoulders with unsavory characters…men who would cut out your tongue or worse, bury you in the desert. Look, those stories lingered in my small burg decades after that notorious era of Sin City had passed. Casino jobs were fine for some people, but not me. SO green…!

Where am I? What have I done?!

What had I gotten myself into? How could I possibly find a job if not in a casino?  Ohio had more than 30 institutions of higher ed…at that time Las Vegas had just two. What the hell am I doing in Las Vegas? As the car crisscrossed the chasm over Hoover Dam, harsh reality set in.

So, I rode my moral high horse –for months— and turned up my nose at casino jobs. FrankIy, I didn’t care to even try. I stayed in my “academia” comfort zone. I volunteered as a literacy tutor with the Clark County Library District. My first student was a food server from the Tropicana…a father of three, reserved and soft-spoken, who wished for something more for his life. Learning to read was his first step. Tutoring was rewarding for me, yes, but it paid no bills.

As the months passed without a job, the routine of doing next to nothing was agony.

One day in May, the phone rang at Uncle Ron’s house. Being the only soul at home, I answered, and a lady with a kind voice said she was calling me from The Mirage with an invitation to interview for something called “Employee Services Manager.” To my surprise, she didn’t fit the Vegas stereotype I had drummed up in my head. Maybe Dad and Uncle Bob had it all wrong?

Truth is, I was trying to adjust and find my way, but I wasn’t taking responsibility …too much “new” was happening all at once. I was unwilling to abandon my moral high horse, yes, but deep down, I was just naive and scared. I didn’t listen to reason, I was rigid and I was wrong to assume the worst when I had no evidence that the worst could happen.  And sometimes it just takes a literal “wake-up call” to gain some perspective and jumpstart momentum.

Just go for it

I wrestled with what happened next. I really needed a job so that my husband and I could start living on our own, then soon after, get serious about that Ph.D. And I had no other prospects in sight. What’s the risk in agreeing to an interview? So, after thinking it over, consulting my mentors and with respectful apologies to my family, I took my moral compass off the shelf for an adjustment, said a prayer and went for it.

I had one interview at The Mirage, followed by a second interview with another Mirage executive and another…and finally the offer came…. and I said, “yes” to my first job in the industry as the Employee Services Manager. But that first job was a rough transition for me, to say it mildly. I tried to resign twice in that first year. Obviously, my resignation wasn’t taken seriously. My boss knew me better than I knew myself.

After a few minor successes organizing company events, recognition programs and launching a leadership series, I settled in and got my groove back. In time, I hired a staff member, then three, then five. Soon I was planning events that required 400 volunteers over three shifts. Later in my career, I oversaw a permanent team of 50. With each new assignment, I was given more complex challenges with higher stakes. My work had purpose and I had so much fun doing it that I lost track of time. Soon that Ph.D dream was replaced by much sexier yet equally compelling growth and learning opportunities.

Every now and then, crazy gigs landed in my lap, the kind that make great stories decades later. Funny stuff that can happen only in Las Vegas…coming face-to-face with one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers back-of-house… producing Oscar-worthy “Employee of the Year” tributes featuring Hollywood celebrity hosts, surprise appearances by a former President of the United States, gold medalists, sports superstars and TV personalities like Siskel & Ebert. But I will save the good stuff for the book-ha!

And so it goes. 

That job was the first of 10 with MGM Resorts International. I am sure my Vegas story is not terribly different from others; the point is that I made a career out of serendipity and a series of seemingly unrelated happy coincidences. My so-called brief side step into gaming became the path, the “way.”  No regrets, only gratitude! 

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