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Photo: Trish Reynolds
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We Nevadans are proud of our rugged rural landscape. Others say “desert” while we describe the rainbow of colorful rocks and invigorating aroma of sagebrush.
We’re a proud people, but none more so than Wally Cuchine, a longtime Eureka resident. Cuchine is the unofficial cheerleader of rural Nevada, singing the praises of small-town living. Officially he is the director of Eureka County Facilities. He runs the Eureka Opera House and Eureka Sentinel Museum and is serving his 12th year on the Nevada Humanities Board of Directors. The Nevada System of Higher Education named him a Distinguished Nevadan in 2006 for his extensive contributions to the arts, and he arguably owns the state’s largest individual collection of Nevada art. Not bad for a small-town guy.
Cuchine spoke with Nevada Commission on Tourism’s Bethany Drysdale in November.
Q What drew you to Eureka?
A The Opera House. There was a job opening to run the Opera House while they were in the process of restoring it; the restoration was finished in October 1993. I’ve been in Eureka 15 years, moving from Ely. I’ve lived all over the state. We have a couple of the richest gold mines in the world, so the county has lots of money, and that’s what’s enabled it to do historic preservation.
Q How has the promotion of Highway 50, “The Loneliest Road in America,” helped Eureka?
A I’ve worked with Pony Express Territory since I was in Ely, and that promotion has been incredibly important. We’re still stamping passports [NCOT’s Highway 50 Survival Guide] on a daily basis at the Opera House. I think the promotion of the Loneliest Road has seen a continual increase of people coming through.
Q You seem very proud of Eureka’s motto, “The Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road.” Why did you become so involved in the town?
A I grew up in small towns in Montana, and I’ve always liked little places. Eureka is incredibly well preserved for an 1800s mining town, and because of the pride the people of Eureka take in their town, it’s been a really great place to live and work. I’ve wanted to live here since I worked here in the early 1980s as an environmental scientist. I graduated from Sierra Nevada College at Lake Tahoe with an environmental science degree in 1979, and I ran an air-quality monitoring site out of Eureka for a year and a half.
Q Every small Nevada town has a little-known claim to fame, something only the locals know. What’s Eureka’s claim to fame?
A I give cemetery tours. Eureka has seven cemeteries, which means there are probably more dead people here than there are live people.
Q What changes have you seen in Eureka over the years?
A None, really. It’s still a small boomtown. Five-hundred people live here, and I’ve seen it boom and fall away. It’s in a boom right now. It’s the seat of Eureka County and has been since it was formed in 1874, and as long as it stays the county seat, it will always be a viable community.
Q How has the rest of the state changed?
A When I lived in Las Vegas, I lived on 20th Street, and it was the outskirts of Vegas. Life has changed a lot, although as far as I’m concerned, Nevada is the best state to live in. I’ve been in most of the states, up to and including Alaska, and it is truly rural when you live in rural Nevada. And I like that. I like being out here and not being surrounded by huge crowds of people. We actually have great services in this town—grocery store, several motels and restaurants, with a clinic that the county has built that is just state of the art. But you’re still very rural. The heart doctor never comes here. For those of us that it appeals to, [we like it]. Most people don’t want to live 270 miles from the nearest metropolitan area.
Q Why is preservation of local history important to you?
A Because I think it addresses our history, and we need to preserve that history so future generations can see where we come from. We think we need to move forward, but we also need to keep track of where we’ve been. History is extremely important to us so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. But preservation needs to take the route that the Opera House did—it’s a fully functional events center, and it brings tourism to Eureka and incredible economic development to an otherwise very small town that could be considered quite isolated. We probably have people in the Opera House 200 days out of the year. The arts and humanities are important for any society to interpret who they are.
Q You have a vast art collection on display at the Opera House. What kind of art attracts you? Are you an artist?
A We’ve put together a fine arts collection that includes 23 Great Basin artists. I’m not an artist, just a collector. And I probably have one of the largest Nevada collections in the state—a collection about Nevada by Nevada artists. I really like paintings of historic places. So a whole lot of my collection is paintings, etchings, drawings. The Nevada Historical Society put “Wally’s World, the Loneliest Art Collection in Nevada” on display for five months in 2005. It was 64 pieces and curated by Jim McCormick, a professor emeritus at UNR who worked in the art department for 32 years.
Q The Eureka Opera House has seen some big names grace its stage. Who has performed there and what’s your most memorable experience?
A I bring in an eclectic variety of performers, but we’ve had some big-name country and western singers and also big-name groups that are world-renowned. The Fry Street Quartet, the Ying Quartet, who are internationally known. And we bring in Don Edwards every year to fairly good crowds and try to present a slate of well-known and excellent performers.
Q How did your love for art develop?
A I started collecting art—a lot more art—when I moved to rural Nevada towns. My first rural Nevada home was Hawthorne, and there were a lot of artists who lived in Hawthorne, and I have a great deal of art from those people. As I moved from town to town throughout Nevada, including Reno and Las Vegas, I just kept collecting art. I had been involved in Reno Little Theater in 1970. When I came to Eureka, the Opera House had a stage, so it just seemed to me we needed to bring in cultural events. My grand opening was a huge cultural event. We brought in Eddie Rabbitt during a whole weekend of events to get people to know about [the Opera House]. We sold 600 tickets to Eddie Rabbitt in two weeks.
Q Anything about you that people don’t know?
A I joined the Air Force when I graduated high school in 1966 and served for four years, spending the last two years in Puerto Rico. I was an airplane mechanic and repaired airplanes. I haven’t been involved in preserving military history, but I think it’s important.
Q Rumor has it you’re retiring soon. What will you do after you retire?
A I’m going to retire in 2011. That’s a few years yet. Hopefully I’ll open an art gallery in Eureka. One of the things I think is important is when it’s time to go, give all of your support to the place you’re leaving, but don’t try to hang on and make it what it was.