PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - At a solemn service attended by dignitaries, relatives, friends and tribal members, Richard Milanovich, the late chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, was eulogized today as a "uniquely personable" leader and devoted family man.
Milanovich died March 11 at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 69.
"One of his unique characteristics was his ability to be uniquely personable with everyone, from a team member on the casino floor to the president of the United States," Tom Davis, chief planning and development officer for the tribe, said during a memorial service at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
He said Milanovich was a "sunny spirit" who would often call "Greetings" through the tribal office's halls.
Milanovich's daughter, Tristan, told the crowd of about 2,000 people at the service that although her father held a powerful position in the tribe and community, to the family, "He was dad, simply that."
"Even with his busy schedule, he was always there," she said.
She remembered her father taking her and her siblings to Indian Canyon to show them where their ancestors lived, and stressing the importance of manners.
"We have been happy to share him with you all. He was our leader, but he was also your leader," she said.
Milanovich's casket was escorted by dozens of vehicles and motorcycles through the streets of Palm Springs to the Convention Center for the service, which was attended by dignitaries including Gov. Jerry Brown and Rep. Mary Bono Mack.
The casket, draped with a white tribal flag, was brought into the convention center ballroom and led up the aisle at the memorial service, followed by Milanovich's family and a cross adorned with flowers. A large photo of him hung behind the stage.
After the casket was placed on the stage, an honor guard folded an American flag and presented it to Milanovich's family in the front row. Milanovich served in the Army from 1960 to 1963.
Hailing Milanovich's leadership abilities, Brown called him "a hero, a leader, an example for all of us."
"In all the arguments about the casinos ... Richard was able to move through all that controversy with a clear eye on the prize," Brown said.
Bono Mack called Milanovich "a great national leader."
"I was always struck by how strongly Richard felt his mission was to work for his people," said Bono Mack, who had to pause at one point to wipe tears.
She recalled her late husband, Sonny Bono, asking Milanovich to run for mayor of Palm Springs. Milanovich joked that it would be a "downgrade," then said, "Thank you, but I already know my destiny."
"That dedication and devotion was what I admired about Richard the most," Bono Mack said.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger posted on Twitter that Milanovich "was a great leader for his tribe. He was a visionary who worked non-stop to secure a better future."
Jeff Grubbe, vice chairman of the tribe, said Milanovich taught him to always be prepared, and took time to mingle with families at the tribe's Christmas and Easter parties despite his other responsibilities.
"I hope someone in heaven has told Frank Sinatra, `Move over, Frank, the real chairman is here,"' Grubbe said.
He said the tribal council pledged to continue Milanovich's work.
The service was followed by a "celebration of life" reception, then a private burial at an undisclosed location.
There will be no Palm Springs City Council meeting tonight, and the flag at City Hall will be flown at half-staff to honor Milanovich, city spokeswoman Amy Blaisdell said.
Milanovich began serving on the Tribal Council in 1978 and was elected the tribe's chairman in 1984.
Tribal and community projects undertaken during his tenure include the purchase of the Spa Hotel in 1992; the addition of the Spa Resort Casino in 1995; development and construction of the Agua Caliente Casino in 2001; and the opening of the $90 million Spa Resort Casino in 2003 and the Spa Hotel's Well Spirit Center Fitness Center in 2004.
The Palm Springs resident also oversaw construction of the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa's new hotel and expansion in 2008, followed by the completion of the tribe's entertainment venue, The Show, in February 2009.
Milanovich was instrumental in the passage of Proposition 5, the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which governs gambling operations on Indian land.
He is survived by his wife of 35 years, Melissa, and six children, Scott, Reid, Tristan, Sean, Travis and Shari.