Carson man lives by simple motto
Before Dick Ham’s wife, Betty, died a year ago, she made him promise he would take a recent monetary windfall, travel around the world and not come home until the money was spent.
It took him six months, but the 77-year-old Ham made a go of it, traveling through Germany, India, Nepal, China, most of Malaysia, Indonesia and Korea before he returned to Carson City.
“If the plane doesn’t come back, who cares,” Ham said. “You can always take time to do anything you want to do. Live life to the fullest and don’t hurt anybody. Follow your heart and live your life. And I mean live it, enjoy it. Life is shorter than we think.”
The simple lavender house in West Carson City with its fluorescent pink door reveals a man with a positive attitude and some rebellious tendencies.
A drawing of the former head of the state Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in the office of his Carson City home shows Ham in a beret, reading the “Diary of Che Gueverra.”
While perhaps not quite as revolutionary as the South American rebel, Ham has been known as a bit of a maverick.
“I’m not like everyone else. I never have been, never wanted to be,” Ham said.
If there’s been a politically unpopular event in the last 50 years, chances are Ham has backed it. Feminism: he supports it. Cuba: the U.S. policy against it is a crime. Spain under General Franco: don’t get him started. He volunteered in both Haiti and Nicaragua at times when U.S. policies would have dictated otherwise.
“I’ve been in a lot of marches in my life,” he said. “I’ve always been an activist. Any time I thought something was not right, I would do what I could. That didn’t always mean I was out demonstrating. I gave money or volunteered.”
Ham’s life as a rebel started during the first grade in Little Rock, Ark.
A young boy, Ham once witnessed the lynching and murder of a black man, an event which forever altered his perception of the world.
“They were dragging him through the street,” Ham said. “I followed it down the street. I couldn’t believe it. They strung him up, tarred and feathered him. They killed him. It never left my mind. I never saw any difference between me and other kids.”
His father followed other Depression-era workers to Las Vegas to help build Boulder Dam. The family hitched a ride to tiny Las Vegas where they found their first home in a tent. It was all the family could afford at $35, but his mother, Bessie, said “it was best to own what you live in no matter what,” Ham said.
He met Betty at school when she was just 9. They graduated from Las Vegas High School at 16 and Ham went to a junior college in California and then to Berkeley, where he was a pre-medicine major. World War II started when he was 18, and he enlisted in the Navy. He wanted to be a pilot but was turned down because he was color blind. He was assigned to a state-side hospital unit, where he got crash courses in medicine.
“I didn’t see wars, but I saw what really happened to the men and women who fought and were casualties of war,” Ham said.
His last post was in Washington, D.C., and after the war he returned to the capital to go to school and work for Sen. Patrick McCarran. He had political differences with McCarran, specifically his stance on Franco’s rule of Spain, and left to work for the state department. He worked for Henry Wallace when he ran against President Harry Truman for president. However, Wallace demanded all employees sign a loyalty oath, and Ham said he “didn’t believe in oaths of that nature” which he compared to the policies of the Inquisition.
He returned to Las Vegas where he and his father, Elmer, started a grocery store. He had kept in contact with Betty through the years and the couple married in 1951 in Las Vegas. They were married for 49 years and are the parents of two children, Jim and Linda.
His work in the capital piqued his interest in politics, and when he returned to Nevada, he became active in the state Democratic party. He was elected to the Boulder city council and during this time befriended a university regent named Grant Sawyer.
He helped Sawyer’s 1958 campaign for governor, and after Sawyer’s election, worked at the state department of employment security. After a year and a half, he became Sawyer’s chief of staff.
His political career carried him back to Washington, D.C. multiple times. He ran a poverty program in Florida and worked on both election campaigns for President Jimmy Carter. He even ran for the House of Representatives at President Lyndon Johnson’s request, but he lost. He became BADA’s chief in 1976 and retired from public service in 1990, but not before serving on the National Commission for Drug Free Schools. After his retirement, he commuted to college in Illinois to finish his college degree in humanities.
“I had the time,” he said. “All I would have had left was an excuse, so I went and did it.”
Ham still works in government consulting on a limited basis. A stroke in 1993 slowed him down a bit, but he lives by a simple philosophy:
“We can do any damn thing we want to do,” he said.