The brash, enterprising Las Vegas legend and casino mogul who brought the Stratosphere to the Strip has sadly died. Bob Stupak, 67, died Friday afternoon from leukemia at Desert Springs Hospital, with his family by his side.
Stupak accomplished a lot of things in life and met a lot of people over the years since coming to Vegas in 1971, and on Friday night, friends remembered a man they called a legend.
“I was surprised and stunned,” said Dr. Lonnie Hammargren.
As word spread of Stupak’s death, the memories of the casino mogul were still very much alive.
“Bob had ideas and did things that people wouldn’t do,” Hammargren said.
Perhaps no one has more memorabilia in one place than former Lt. Gov. Hammargren. His backyard is a lasting legacy to Stupak’s creations, including a model space ship that graced the top of Stupak’s Vegas World in the late ‘70s.
“He loved to rock the boat,” said Howard Schwartz. Schwartz met Stupak in the early ‘80s while working at the Gambler’s Book Shop. “He came into the store, and he always had questions about new games or something innovative he wanted to try,” Schwartz said.
That innovative spirit led Stupak to build what still is the tallest structure in Las Vegas — the 1,149-foot-tall Stratosphere — in 1996.
The Stratosphere seemed a metaphor for all of Stupak’s life struggles: Its construction was stalled by a dramatic fire high in its pedestal that rained embers onto the street, and three months after its 1996 opening — and a year after he nearly died in a motorcycle crash — he resigned as chairman as the property was falling into bankruptcy.
It was after that when he pitched his Titanic casino, which Las Vegas city officials promptly rejected.
Stupak’s bickering with city and county politicians, and his contention that he could do a better job, led to several blustery runs for public office and a stint at publishing his own maverick weekly newspaper, the now defunct Las Vegas Bullet.
In his inaugural run for mayor in 1987, he sent gift fruit baskets to potential voters. Stupak also financed the unsuccessful Las Vegas City Council campaigns of his daughter Nicole in 1991 and his son, Nevada, in 1999.
Stupak also was credited with helping to get his then nurse-turned-girlfriend, Janet Moncrief, elected to Las Vegas City Council in 2003. She wound up being the only council member ever to be recalled from office. Stupak tossed his hat into the political arena for the last time in 2006, making a run for lieutenant governor of Nevada. He finished third, garnering 17 percent of the statewide vote.
In the late 1990s Stupak began helping charitable causes through his foundation, including opening a community center in one of the poorest areas of town.
For his philanthropic efforts, the Las Vegas City Council on Feb. 23, 1996, issued a proclamation citing Stupak for his “valuable pioneering efforts” and “his outstanding generosity … in answering the call of children, the homeless and the underprivileged.”
In more recent years, a seemingly mellower Stupak kept a much lower profile, content to play in high stakes poker games at the Bellagio and other major Strip resort card rooms and shirking the limelight he once sought with much fervor. He also was seen occasionally on televised poker events, including a final table during the first season of the World Poker Tour.
Streetwise and poker-savvy, abrasive and ambitious, Bob Stupak was always the ultimate Las Vegas gambler and huckster, always pushing the envelope if it would bring him publicity.
Always the independent (his nickname was “the Polish Maverick”), he was more aggravating than charming, but always a topic of conversation, which pleased him.
“He thought of himself as larger than he was and could often come off as gruff and angry, especially if you disagreed with him,” said Howard Schwartz, operator of the Gamblers Book Shop. “Bob Stupak liked being controversial — he swam upstream. It was almost overkill how he tried to earn people’s respect, which he never truly got. People would smile and shake his hand then talk about him behind his back.”
Stupak was sometimes the survivor — like after a horrific motorcycle crash that crushed every bone in his face and left him in a coma 14 years ago — and sometimes the loser, running unsuccessfully to be the Las Vegas mayor, a Clark County commissioner and the Nevada lieutenant governor.
What he did win at was poker. A fixture at the old World Series of Poker at what is now Binion’s, in 1989 he won a $139,500 purse in the $5,000 buy-in no-limit deuce-to-7 world championship. He made the final table of that event three more times during his career.
“Bob was a decathlon gambler — sports bets, propositions, poker — everything at once,” said Las Vegas oddsmaker and gambler Lem Banker, who gave Stupak the advice to take Cincinnati plus 6 1/2 points in the 1989 Super Bowl against San Francisco for Stupak’s legendary $1 million winning bet. “He had a lot of heart and a lot of brains.”
Besides children Nevada and Nicole, Stupak is survived by another daughter, Summer; two sisters, Linda Phillips and Nancy O’Conner, and two former wives, Sandra Blumen and Annette Hatton.
Stupak requested that there not be a funeral service.