Ron and Mary Helen Hyde have a gambling problem they want to solve.
It's not of their own making, and they're not tackling it alone. Rather, their home-based crusade is part of a grass-roots effort nationwide aimed at stopping the spread of legalized gambling. As full-time volunteers to the cause, they've turned the den of their Orem home into the information center for the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.Like most other residents of the Beehive State, they're not personally privy to the inner workings of casinos and craps tables. So why the concerted effort, when retirement and travel beckon? "In January 1995, we were invited to Salt Lake to meet with the Public Affairs Committee of the (LDS) church," Ron explains. "They said they were concerned about the expansion of gambling throughout the world and that the church wanted to help out with this new coalition that had been formed."
The group needed a national information office. Would Ron and Mary Helen be willing to set it up in their home? The request was not issued as a formal church calling, such as LDS missionaries receive, Ron says. "We were asked to do it, but not set apart," Ron recalls. Formal church callings include a priesthood blessing, or setting apart, by church leaders. "But we were invited to represent the church in this effort.
"I'm not certain we would have become involved otherwise," Ron says. "I had no idea what was happening with legalized gambling. But we've now been enlightened by literally thousands of phone calls from people concerned about having casinos built in their backyards."
With a computer, fax machine and a toll-free information line set up in their den, the couple respond to requests for information that helps fuel anti-gambling battles large and small all across the country.
During a typical day, Ron gets to "the office" between 7 and 7:30 a.m. and pulls up the coalition's homepage on the Internet to see what kinds of information requests have come in overnight. "There are usually four or five requests for information every morning." He also checks a list of news articles on gambling sent from a coalition member in Atlanta.
"Then we go about our business. When the phone rings, we pick it up or the answering machine takes it. On an average day, we get eight, 10, maybe 12 calls from all over the nation. Some of those will want information and contacts. Most want to get involved in their own states - and we're able to link them to people there who are fighting it."
With Mary Helen doing data input on the computer and running packets to the post office, they keep the information flow as constant as possible. "We have a standard information packet we send out - we probably mail five or six of those per day."
That is, unless nationally syndicated columnist William Safire is stirring the anti-gambling pot in one of his columns. "Occasionally he'll write an article and give our 800 number - our phone starts ringing at 5:30 a.m. on those days. We'll take 50 to 60 calls and send out 40 to 50 packets," Ron said. "It's virtually a full-time job. Not every waking hour, but sometimes it seems that way."
Callers run the spectrum of career and political activity, including homemakers, business people, dentists, doctors and attorneys. "We take in everybody from (liberal consumer advocate) Ralph Nader to Ralph Reed (spokesman for the conservative Christian Coalition.) And while that wide reach might seem like a mixed blessing of sorts when the couple is buried under an avalanche of phone calls and paperwork, "we try to get the 800 number out to as many sources as we can. There are a lot of initiatives going on, and we try to provide interested parties with enough ammunition to go to work with the media, as well as with government leaders they're trying to lobby."
Without doubt, their efforts are having an impact. Just ask Tom Grey, a former United Methodist minister turned anti-gambling activist and executive director of the coalition. During a recent visit to Salt Lake City, he praised the work the Hydes are doing and lauded the LDS Church for its support. He also paraded an impressive array of statistics, including the fact that since the group's formation in 1994, it has managed to attract religious and secular members in every state.
Lobbying on the local, state and national level, the coalition and its members have helped defeat gambling initiatives in 33 statewide referendum and legislative battles in 25 different states. This despite "the multimillion-dollar campaign the gaming industry orchestrates through lobbying efforts and political contributions," Grey said. Such success has the mild-mannered spokesman more than a little euphoric.
Dubbed "the most dangerous man in America" by the gaming industry, Grey's non-stop schedule criss-crossing the country has gained national attention. CBS's "60 Minutes" has been tracking the effort for weeks. And as a result of the coalition's efforts, President Clinton signed legislation in August, creating a 9-member federal commission to investigate all facets of gambling.
Despite the victory, Grey is skeptical that any political organization will turn back legalized gambling in America. "It's only at the grass-roots, local level that the real battles will be fought and won when it comes to gambling, because that's where you see the impact."
The Hydes couldn't agree more.
"I've never been a gambler," says Ron. "I'm a strong work ethic kind of person. And I think gambling strikes at the fiber of American society. It fosters that `something for nothing attitude,' and I'm appalled that states are promoting it. Somehow people are sometimes led to believe that if the state is sponsoring it, it must be fine, or if it goes for education it must be fine. But the social costs are staggering . . . .
"It just breaks down families. Once a person gets addicted, it's just like crack cocaine. They will steal money from their own families or employers - anything to get money to gamble. One study we have by a professor at the University of Illinois estimates that for every dollar of revenue gambling brings in, the state ends up paying out three dollars in social costs."
A former vice president at Brigham Young University - which was recently dubbed one of the nation's most "boring" campuses for party atmosphere - Ron has seen the flip side of society during the past two years. As a member of the coalition's board, he'll continue to be involved with the group on a national level.
But he and Mary Helen "will be turning the information center over to someone else soon," he says. "We thought we were going to retire and travel, but we don't get far from the den these days." Having served their time, they say they can look back with satisfaction on what they've accomplished. Still, the call of faraway places pulls at them, and they hope to answer it soon.
As for Las Vegas, it can just keep calling.