Las Vegan George Olivas is a semi-retired handyman. At 77 years old, he still climbs ladders and squeezes into attics. “It’s what I do,” he says. Olivas brings lots of experience to his jobs admitting, “I’ve led an interesting life; I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Olivas shares a birthday with George Washington. His patriotic parents, in fact, named him for the nation’s first President. But while Washington sought the challenges of the military, Olivas’ life experience taught him to build and to fix. Work has taken Olivas from his boyhood home in New Mexico to several towns in the West and Midwast and even to Alaska, Hawaii and Israel.
Among Olivas’ most interesting jobs? In 1954, after working for short periods in Chicago, Denver and Spokane, WA, Olivas came to Las Vegas. A local employment office sent the young man 21 miles up the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. Olivas helped to build a 1700-foot pipeline to a bat cave. Bat guano (excrement), rich in nitrates used in fertilizer and exposives, filled the cave. The pipe that led to the cave allowed the dried guano to be siphoned, loaded into bags and transported down the river. “I loved that job,” Olivas said. “We had a camp by the river; it was so peaceful. We went fishing and cooked wild geese and ducks.” After eight months, Olivas’ employer sold his rights to the cave and the job ended.
Next was a job with Reynolds Electric at the Nevada test site. George was part of a crew that placed insects, small animals, cars and buildings at various points away from Ground Zero. The effects of an atomic blast were then studied. “We wore badges that would measure our exposure to radiation,” he explained. “The day my badge indicated a high dose of radiation, I quit.”
Marriage brought with it a steady job with Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) in Las Vegas. Olivas helped wire and maintain electric signs downtown. “I was with YESCO seven years when I met a man who asked me how much I made. I think it was about $2.75 an hour then. He told me he would pay me $100 a day to pour patios. I didn’t know if that offer was real or not, so I did a few jobs on my off days. I was paid $100 a day. I felt like a millionaire.” Olivas left YESCO and went full-time in the patio-pouring business. He and his wife bought a house and had two children. In 1967, however, the marriage ended.
A bachelor again, Olivas’ wanderlust took over; he drove to Seattle (“a bad place for electrical work due to all the rain”). His next stop was Alaska where he spent a year of 80-hour weeks pouring curbs, gutters and sidewalks. “I drove up to Alaska by myself in the winter. I liked my time there, but I always had an itch to return to Las Vegas,” he said. “I enjoy a 24-hour town and I did like the ladies and the gambling, too.”
Olivas and a partner in Las Vegas then formed a company and for several years poured pool decks for Pollard and Tropicana Pools.
“One night in 1982, I was at the bar at the Horseshoe talking to a guy who asked me what I did,” Olivas recalled. “He said he owned several restaurants in Hawaii and wanted to build a house on Maui, but the bids he got were too high. He asked me to build his house. I thought he was kidding. But not long afterwards, I received a whole set of drawings in the mail.”
Olivas had a friend who did framing. They studied the drawings, and together agreed to build the house. They were paid $250 a day with all room and board paid as well. They hired a crew and in the next year and a half built a 4000 sq. ft. house, a 600 sq. ft. guest house and a 20′ by 40′ pool. Though the house was originally for this man’s wife, she never lived in it. “He was offered $2 million for the property, and he sold it,” said Olivas. “The project cost him total about $400,000.”
After another short stint in Seattle, Olivas was back in Las Vegas. He was helping to build the pool deck at the new Mirage Hotel & Casino when a man from Israel asked the foreman if a couple of his guys could do a job in Israel. “The foreman asked which of us had passports,” Olivas explained. “Danny Henderson and I had passports, and three days later, we were on our way to Israel. I was anxious to go because I had always wanted to visit Egypt. The town we were going to, Eilat, was not far from Cairo.”
A pool and pool deck were built at the Eliat hotel, and during Jewish holidays, Olivas and Henderson made side trips throughout Israel and into Egypt. “We saw Luxor, the pyramids, everything….it was like a paid vacation,” said Olivas.
Returnng from Israel, Olivas started his semi-retirement while still agreeing to help out friends and friends of friends as an all-purpose handyman.
“Over the years, I made lots of money and spent most of it,” says Olivas. “I had a couple girlfriends; we traveled and enjoyed ourselves. In recent years, however, I finally started saving money.”
Today, Olivas lives in a $100,000 motor home just off Boulder Highway. He says he has everything he needs and his expenses are minimal. In addition to work (at 77, he has all the customers he wants), he keeps up on the activities of his two children, three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
“I grew up during the Depression and we didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing for many years,” he says. “I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to travel, have interesting work, meet wonderful people and live well. I feel great, but at my age, I know I could go any time. But what a wonderful life so far.”