DAWN GIBBONS: Devoted to her causes

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Anyone who expected Dawn Gibbons to quietly fade away after her husband Gov. Jim Gibbons filed for divorce didn't know her very well.

She may have a lower public profile because, as she put it, "It's not like I get invited to the big special events."

But she maintains a full calendar working on many of the same causes she has championed for more than a decade.

"I run into her all the time," said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. "She clearly is taking her responsibilities as first lady very seriously."

"She's such a hard worker at whatever she does," said Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno.

Gibbons said she has a long list of causes and events that seem to want her to continue participating.

"We're always surprised they still invite me, but they do," she said.

Asked for this past Wednesday's schedule as an example, she produced a day that began with a 7 a.m. TV interview in Reno followed by an immunization event with State Health Officer Dr. Tracey Green. Her next appointment was 10 a.m. at Bordewich-Bray Elementary in Carson City to speak about flu prevention. At noon, she spoke to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund luncheon in the mansion. Then it was off to Reno for a flight to Las Vegas and a 6 p.m. address at the Positively Kids Gala at the Four Seasons.

A typical day.

Gibbons says the divorce - which still isn't final after 16 months - took her by surprise.

"Initially I was heartbroken. I look at pictures of me back then. I was so sad, I didn't look like Dawn."

The divorce, characterized in the New York Times as "tawdry," made national headlines, flamed by Dawn's claim in court papers that the governor had been carrying on an affair with the wife of a Reno podiatrist, longtime friends of the Gibbonses, with whom he exchanged hundreds of text messages, and also with a former Playboy model.

Dawn Gibbons moved out of the Governor's Mansion and into a three-room apartment in an annex on mansion grounds. She said she intends to stay there until the divorce is final or Gibbons' term ends next year, whichever comes first. She would not comment publicly on the proceedings.

In the meantime, Gibbons pushes ahead with what she says are her duties as first lady.

"I need the causes as much as the causes need me," she said.

And it's working: "I'm a better person, a stronger person. I wouldn't go back. I think I'm just happy with me."

She's also gotten a lot of support from people around the state. After a document in the divorce case described living with her as "like being locked in a phone booth with an enraged ferret," she started getting ferret-related gifts in the mail, including pins, buttons and T-shirts with slogans like "Fear the ferret."

Most days she now wears a gold ferret pin on her lapel, serving notice that her sense of humor is back as well.

Not only is it working for her, it's working for her major causes.

"A lot of women in these circumstances would fade into the background, but that's never been Dawn's style," said Leslie. "No negative attitude at all. She's doing what she perceives to be her job as a community leader."

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto also praised her continuing work on causes including the methamphetamine task force, which Masto heads.

"She's so quietly effective that people don't realize how much she contributes to addressing the meth abuse in this state," she said. "She's so effective and committed to the issues and finding solutions it's been a pleasure working with her."

The anti-meth program developed in Nevada by that task force, Gibbons said, is now going national.

"We raised a lot of money for the Crystal Darkness anti-meth campaign," she said. "It's being syndicated nationally now."

She said she went to Washington, D.C., to present that program to a group of governors' spouses, and 17 states are now using the Crystal Darkness campaign.

Gibbons also is a key force in the battle to find cures for autism. Her latest effort there is the upcoming 100th anniversary of the construction of the Governor's Mansion. Money from the sale of a history book about the mansion and prints of a centennial painting featuring all living Nevada governors will go to the cause. So too will proceeds from a $250-a-plate black-tie dinner honoring the governors this week in Las Vegas.

She is also involved in numerous other causes. She's honorary chairwoman of the upcoming Family Day and appears at events such as the opening of the Stewart Indian School historical trail.

Former Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa says she has worked with Gibbons since she was an assemblywoman and Gibbons asked for help setting up the organ donor task force.

"She had been active in organ donation for a long time. We still work together on the organ donor task force," Del Papa said. "She's done a lot of good for the state."

Del Papa also cited Gibbons' support for programs to prevent domestic violence. Most recently, she was on the committee that looked at how to spend domestic violence funding in the federal stimulus legislation.

"I'm busy but it's more like specific causes," she said. "The things I get invited to are with real people."

Leslie said all those causes aren't just something Gibbons is involved with because she's the first lady, that she has worked on them and cared about them for years.

"She really believes in these issues," said Leslie, and as a result, she said the reaction she gets from community leaders is very positive.

"They appreciate that she continues to be involved."

"It's been an interesting first-ladyship," said Gibbons.


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