Steve Drakulich changed the world from his wheelchair
Expanded from the 12-29-2002 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune
This column also appeared in the 12-31-2002 Ely (Nev.) Times
and the 1-5-2003 Carson City Nevada Appeal

Updated 4-11-2010: Bette Drakulich, 1925-2009
Update 5-16-2010: Former Nevada Chief Justice Al Gunderson dies in Las Vegas at age 80

"God does not send an army of men to do his work. God sends one man to raise an army."

— The Rev. Lewis M. Anthony
At the annual Martin Luther King Day dinner
Sparks, Nev.

The army which was Steve Drakulich faded away last Sunday at Reno's Ioannis A. Lougaris Veterans Medical Center.

My old friend Steve died of complications of multiple sclerosis at age 82. At one time he was heralded as the longest-surviving victim of that damnable disease.

Longtime MS counselor and activist Drakulich dies
Member of prominent Nevada family, brother of first UNLV coach was 82
Las Vegas Sun 12-27-2002

Steve Drakulich, 1920-2002
Reno Gazette-Journal 12-27-2002

White Pine County remembers Steve Drakulich
Ely Times 12-30-2002

The muscular boy from the copper mining town of McGill in White Pine County first fell ill in England during World War II. After winning the state Golden Gloves boxing championship at age 13, Steve became a star shortstop and pitcher at White Pine High School. He was playing minor league baseball in Idaho and Montana when war came.

"The air raid sirens would go off at my air base and we were supposed to head for shelter. I'd start running, then I'd fall and have to crawl the rest of the way using my arms," Steve once told me.

Military doctors were baffled and chalked up his collapses to fear. Only when he returned stateside was he diagnosed with the mysterious neurological disease known as multiple sclerosis.

"I don't think it would have gotten so bad if I'd had the right diagnosis and care earlier," he said.

Steve spent the rest of his life working to see that others would not share his fate.

I first met him in 1971. I was astounded that the gruff-voiced man in the wheelchair had the arm strength of Popeye the Sailor. When Steve shook your hand, your hand remembered.

Bette and Steve on their wedding day

As Nevada will always remember them

You yourself may have seen him and not known who he was. Steve Drakulich was the guy in the wheelchair you saw on the sidelines at countless UNR athletic events. His love for the competition at which he had once excelled never faded although the power of that handshake slowly did.

His passing is a benchmark in this community's continuing transition away from the warmly personal to the cool and corporate. Steve got things done because he knew a lot of people and was not bashful about asking them for help.

His finest of many championship seasons came in 1970. He had been asked to lead what was then known as the Nevada Central Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The unpaid job came with five dollars in the bank.

Disregarding direction from the national organization, Drakulich and company began to promote special events to raise funds. The old boxer with the crooked nose ended up sponsoring Tschaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet.

The matinee performance at the Pioneer Theatre attracted a less than capacity crowd. Steve and his wife, Bette, worried about the rest of the run.

"Then, it just exploded," Bette Drakulich told me several years later. The production was so good that matinee attendees went home, called their friends and urged them to go. It was a box office smash. Nevada has a way of taking care of you if you've taken care of others.

So began an unbroken string of triumphs throughout the 1970s — a rock 'n' roll battle of the bands, the San Francisco and Oakland ballet companies and Salt Lake City's prestigious Ballet West.

Steve's organizational skills did not go unnoticed. He was asked to chair the northern Nevada gubernatorial campaign of an unknown Democrat from Las Vegas named Mike O'Callaghan. The big ex-marine was given no chance against anointed Republican Lt. Gov. Ed Fike.

Drakulich's energetic campaign undercut Fike's conservative northern base. O'Callaghan's lead from the south was thus enough to prevail in one of the biggest upsets of the century.

Steve quickly put Big Mike to work and the Governor's Barbecue for MS was born. Held on the back lawn of the Carson City governor's mansion, the reasonably priced event attracted average Nevadans and a who's-who of Nevada politics and show business.

Steve Drakulich's tireless efforts brought local, state and national honors to both the Nevada MS chapter and himself. The organization hosted seminars and expanded patient services while always sending as much as possible toward researching a cure. When political help was needed in Washington, the national society would call Steve.

Going to monthly meetings at Steve's was the most fun a political junky could ever wish for — an hour of charity business followed by heavy politics.

Alas, all good things must pass. The transition started with the first MS Readathon wherein school children acquired sponsorship to pay them to read books. The Readathon put the chapter over the top financially. Based on population, we had become the top dollar producer in the nation. Steve had turned that original five bucks into one of the best investments in history. Pretty soon, people from New York were coming here to teach us how to run things. Next came an office, then an executive director.

Steve resigned in 1980 and the rest of us political guys soon followed. The chapter today performs very worthy service. Its highest annual honor is named for Steve who continued to counsel victims long after he stepped down.

But the old days of working out of Steve and Bette's family room are gone. I will never again get a phone call from Steve asking me to go see Bear Quilici at the Copenhagen Bar on Prater Way and pick up a case of booze for the Governor's BBQ. I won't hear Steve warmly telling me to get my tutu ready because we're bringing Ballet West's legendary Nutcracker back to town.

Steve Drakulich's story is one of outstanding achievement attained through personal connection. He commanded so much respect that no one could refuse him. He was a master of networking before the term was coined.

Now, the town is bigger and has become more corporate. People don't know their neighbors. The olden Nevada is fading.

But we will always be warmed by the bright light Steve Drakulich shined on so many lives while he passed this way.

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Copyright © 2002, 2004, 2010, 2013 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 34-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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