“I’m scared,” he told me. The words were uttered not in a self-pitying, desperate manner but as a statement of fact. His candor and calm were somehow both befuddling and expected. Bob Forbuss, you see, is known for remaining cool and steady in virtually any situation.
This time, though, the crisis is his. At 62, he is dying.
Yet even as hearts break in every corner of the Vegas world he has quietly and immutably transformed, Bob remains methodical, engaging and direct. You tell him how sorry you are and he just puts his gentle, occasionally gyrating hand on yours and provides you with comfort from a voice box that will give out sooner rather than later.
Bob has ALS, the fatal neurological ailment that cruelly leaves its victims physically paralyzed and mentally astute. Seventy years since Lou Gehrig made ALS famous, modern medicine isn’t close to solving it. Because it is rare (1 in 100,000 get it) and fast-moving (death usually occurs in less than four years), it doesn’t command covers of Time like Alzheimer’s or get football-uniform color accents like breast cancer. Big Pharma can’t cash in by solving unusual, short-term illnesses, so research dollars go to the next Viagra instead.
You’re forgiven if you’re unaware of Bob, which is why I wanted to write about him now. He has lived a life of great public service with too little fanfare, a rare native Las Vegan baby boomer who taught at Bishop Gorman in his 20s and became a Clark County School Board member by age 31. He was an emergency medical technician who went on to own the city’s ambulance company and become wealthy by expanding it across the Southwest.
With that largesse, he became a philanthropist and one of Nevada’s most influential political insiders. He served two terms as Chamber of Commerce chairman, seven years as a board member with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and is past president of the local Rotary Club and Boys & Girls Club. He is also a gay trailblazer, a man who has supported every gay- or HIV-related cause imaginable and helped push through a litany of pro-gay legislation.
Bob didn’t want his illness to become a big thing, but he’s too beloved for it not to get around. Last month, at a fundraising dinner for the Clark County Public Education Foundation, political guru Sig Rogich announced the group had named a $1 million fund for Bob. As Rogich did so, Harrah’s executive and ex-mayor Jan Jones, one of Bob’s closest friends, openly wept. The moment was caught on video and shared online, so Bob lifted my embargo from writing about this.
Bob can sense the disease taking its toll faster than expected. As we gazed at the autumn sunset from his back porch in Henderson last week, both of us were too aware of his slurring rasp, his spasming arms, his evident weight loss.
Still, the sparkle remains in his handsome, patrician face. He’s been getting his affairs in order, and he paraded some precious artifacts: old Bishop Gorman yearbooks, because dozens of former students flew in last weekend to see him; his birth certificate from Las Vegas General Hospital, now UMC; his first contract at Gorman, a $7,000-a-year deal requiring him to pay for subs if he missed a day; an album of Polaroids of his mom working at the legendary old mobster hangout, the Green Shack.
Will he make ALS awareness his final cause? He considered it, but decided both his energy and money would probably yield bigger results focused on Forbuss Elementary, the 2-year-old school in the southwest named for him, where he is a constant presence.
That’s Bob, logical and selfless as ever. As for the rest of us, we feel angry, powerless and sad. Others will cope in their way, but this is mine, by making sure people know what an important and invaluable man this community is about to lose.