Churdan High ’49 graduate “Gus” Gustafson’s business career was the talk of the Twin Cities and Las Vegas – while it lasted

CHURDAN, Iowa, April 29, 2019 — Deil O. (“Gus”) Gustafson, who graduated from old Churdan High School in 1949, may have been one of the biggest business success stories ever to come out of Greene County. In the 1960s, he was a lawyer, college professor, and the owner of banks and other businesses in Minnesota. In the 1970s, he was owner-operator of the famous or infamous Tropicana casino & resort in Las Vegas. In the 1980s, it all unraveled and collapsed around him, and he served three-plus years in prison. In 1999 back in Minnesota, he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 67.

This Friday, May 3, the Greene County Historical Society will remember and explore Gustafson’s story in a meeting and program at the Public Library in his old hometown of Churdan.

Paul White, of Churdan, a member of the historical society board of directors, was a half-dozen years behind Gustafson in school and has always been fascinated by his life. The past year, he’s been compiling information about the man, contacting Gustafson’s high school classmates for their help, and working with another historical board member Chuck Offenburger, of Cooper, a retired journalist.

Gustafson was riding high when he was featured in this 1974 story that ran in newspapers in Lohrville and Bayard in west central Iowa. The local papers were following-up a front-page profile story on Gustafson that the Wall Street Journal had recently published.

Their research has included a long telephone interview with Gustafson’s daughter Kristina Gustafson, about 55, who is an equestrian, a ranch owner and a realtor in Florida.

“My dad was a true entrepreneur,” Kristina said. “He had hotels, banks, farms, housing, casinos, you name it. He was working on projects like desalination of water, to make it potable, and also on building electric-powered cars, way back in the 1960s and ’70s. He was always a man ahead of his times, usually at least 10 years ahead. And he was great at taking over white elephants and figuring out a way to turn them around and make money on them. Yes, he became famous, but it was never about the fame for him. He just loved to deal.”

Kristina Gustafson in a Facebook photo.

Did he talk much in later life about his high school years in Churdan?

“He was always bringing it up,” Kristina said.

Gus Gustafson was a major newsmaker during his career, both in the Twin Cities and in Las Vegas. By 1974, he was profiled on page one of the Wall Street Journal, and most other prominent business publications also featured him. One of them nicknamed him “The Grand Acquisitor.” At one point, the value of his various holdings were estimated at $200 million, and his personal net worth was said to be more than $20 million – and that was more than a fortune back then in the ’70s.

Eventually, he was overextended financially, had to take on partners, and that opened the door to his empire being infiltrated by “the Kansas City mob,” as newspaper stories back then referred to it. Gustafson served 40 months in prison, and he also became a witness for additional federal prosecution of Kansas City crime figures.

In an exchange with Offenburger, longtime Las Vegas newspaper columnist John L. Smith recalled the Gustafson era at the Tropicana and said, “I was frankly a little surprised he wasn’t murdered by some of his business associates.”

Gustafson wound up back in Minnesota, overseeing a farming operation in the Cannon Falls area.

Gustafson, as a graduating senior, in the 1949 Churdan High School yearbook.

On Friday, White and Offenburger will moderate a panel discussion that will include Gustafson’s high school classmates Rosemary Fay Cassell, of Churdan, and Doug Tucker, of Jefferson. Added to the panel, for his special knowledge of Churdan community history in the 1940s and ’50s, is Cecil “Cy” Hoyle, who graduated from Churdan High in 1946.

Audience members will also asked to share stories and memories of Gus Gustafson and his family, who lived in Churdan from about 1946 to the early 1950s. His father Otto Gustafson was co-partner in a John Deere farm implement business in the community, his mother Britta was active in Churdan church and social life. They had a daughter Jeanette Gustafson, four years older than Gus.

Note that Gustafson’s real first name was “Deil.” In his high school yearbook photos, you’ll see it spelled “Dale.” He dealt with a lifetime of confusion about that, tracing to when his name was recorded at birth. His Swedish-born mother told the nurses she was naming her new boy “Dale,” but with her accent, the nurses somehow heard “Deil” and that’s what was recorded. Most people, throughout his life, just called him “Gus.”

On Friday, there will be a catered lunch in the library’s community room at 12 noon, $8 for historical society members and $10 for others who are not members but would like to eat with us. Historical society members should RSVP about lunch to their community contacts by Tuesday evening, April 30, and others who want to have lunch should RSVP to board member Margaret Hamilton at (515) 386-4408.

The program at 1 p.m. in the library’s community room is free and open to the public.

The fall 1948 baseball team at Churdan High School included Gustafson, there in the front row. He was said to be a fine player in both baseball and basketball.
In the inaugural edition of this Twin Cities business publication in 1983, Gustafson was featured in the cover story by David Carr. By that time, Gustafson’s string of business successes had crumbled.  The story quotes Gustafson, during a courtroom trial, saying, “Now, I wish I never heard of the Tropicana.”
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