A simple good-bye for a simple man

There is only one message on the marquee: "Milos Sharkey Begovich, 1926-2002."

Absent for the moment are the entertainment ads and promotions for 2-for-1 drink specials and prime rib dinners at Sharkey's Casino.

I think Sharkey would approve of the simple acknowledgment of his passing at the Gardnerville landmark which bears his name. He was the kind of person who didn't stand much on ceremony, unless, of course, it was Serbian Christmas. For 30 years, he fed upwards of 4,000 guests for free on Jan. 7, continuing a tradition he brought from his mother's boardinghouse in Plymouth, Calif.

I have to confess, I only attended one Serbian Christmas feast. The thought of standing in line for roasted goat didn't appeal to me. I came to my senses in January 2000 when I realized I'd always be a newcomer if I didn't experience the event. Serbian Christmas was on a Friday that year, so Christy Chalmers and I walked down from The Record-Courier after deadline. It was freezing, so we moved quickly. We arrived after 7 p.m., but the line still snaked through the casino. We joined the end of it and settled in for a wait.

It seemed to crawl, but there was plenty to look at -- patrons as well as memorabilia. As we neared the food servers, Sharkey made his way through the crowd, warmly greeting pilgrims who came every year as well as newcomers. He wasn't well, but he had stopped in to make sure everything was as it should be, to the standards and traditions he learned as a boy.

When he saw us, he said to me, "Baby, why didn't you just come in the side door? I would have let you go to the front of the line."

I would like to point out that the reason the line moved so slowly was because every other guest was cutting in line. By the time we were served, there was still plenty of food, the goat was OK, and diners were still slipping in the side door, claiming Sharkey said they could go to the front of the line.

About 10 years ago, photographer Jay Aldrich and I were doing a preview of the Serbian Christmas for Nevada Magazine. We worked on the story well in advance of the event to meet the magazine's early deadline. Sharkey rounded up a platter of roast pig for the photo. If that cold, dead pig didn't push me into the arms of PETA, nothing will.

"Baby," he chided me, "it's just bacon."

I don't remember being formally introduced to Sharkey -- I felt as though I always knew him -- nor can I recall the first time he called me "baby." I suspect Sharkey called a lot of women "baby." It wasn't the most politically-correct greeting as we entered the new millennium, but as far as I was concerned, Sharkey could call me anything he wanted.

When I arrived in Gardnerville in 1981 to work at The Record-Courier, our old Eddy Street office was a short walk across two parking lots from the casino. For a flatlander like me, Sharkey's was the perfect classroom. The opportunities we had to talk, I always learned something -- Serbian Christmas traditions, cowpasture boxing, or maybe the story behind one of the thousands of items he had covering every available surface in the casino. It gave me a great sense of pride to walk into Sharkey's on a Thursday morning and see people at the counter reading their Record-Couriers and grousing about the state of affairs.

You could usually find Sharkey at the end of the counter; a few years later he migrated to a table in the back. Sharkey's legacy was his unconditional acceptance of anyone. Everybody was a somebody to Sharkey. Everyone knew that's where you went if you needed anything -- a meal, clothes, a job, a loan.

The sad fact that he wore out his giant, generous heart will come as no surprise to anyone he helped in his 76 years.

Sheila Gardner is the night desk editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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