Wednesday, May 25, 2005 | 11:19 a.m.
Wing Fong, a banker, businessman, land developer and civic leader perhaps best known for building Fong's Garden on East Charleston Boulevard nearly half a century ago, died Sunday. He was 79.
The son of Cantonese farmers, Wing Fong was sent to live with his uncles in Las Vegas in 1939 after his father died. Without knowing the language, Fong worked his way through school and became a major figure in the business community, as well as a well-known philanthropist.
"He was able to embrace the American dream and fulfill his wishes with hard work, courtesy, and respect for other people," Fong's son, Kenneth, said.
Wing Fong, longtime president of Wing Fong Enterprises got his start in the American business world as a dishwasher. Growing up in Las Vegas, he steadfastly refused to invest in the gambling business because he could not stand to see people lose.
His son said he was compassionate and tried to help others.
As a young man running a small grocery store that had a few slot machines, Wing Fong cringed as he watched one of his poorer customers lose her grocery money in the one-armed bandit. As the woman prepared to leave, he surprised the customer by giving her several bags of groceries. It was not the only time he did that.
Over the years, Fong, a naturalized U.S. citizen, invested his money in real estate, building a sprawling financial empire and engaging in philanthropy.Fong is credited with being one of the first area business developers to build on the outskirts of town and for giving black residents jobs in many of the businesses he opened in the early 1960s -- a time when work for minorities was limited to predominantly black West Las Vegas.
Gov. Paul Laxalt in 1968 at the height of civil unrest during the Civil Rights movement appointed Fong to the state's Equal Rights Commission.
Fong was the widower of Lilly Fong, the first Asian-American university system regent who served in that post between 1974 and 1984.
After arriving in the U.S. in 1939, Fong worked as a dishwasher in his uncle's Silver Cafe.
Fong spoke no English at the time and taught himself the language with the use of English/Chinese dictionaries.
He graduated from Las Vegas High and, in 1950, earned a business degree from Woodbury College. He returned to Las Vegas and worked as a bookkeeper before opening the grocery store with a friend.
"He worked his way through high school and getting his college degree, then applied that knowledge into purchasing rural land and developing that land," Kenneth Fong said. "He learned the value of hard work."
Despite occasionally giving away groceries to people who lost their money in the store's slot machines, Fong turned a profit, which he used to build an apartment building.
After opening Fong's Garden in 1955, he built home furnishing centers, shopping centers, convalescent homes and many other structures. They are some of the early endeavors that made his name in Las Vegas.
Brian Greenspun, president and editor of the Sun, said his family was close to the Fong family "and our respect for Wing and Lilly was total."
"For as long as I can remember -- as a young boy going to Fong's Garden restaurant, as a teenager learning of his involvement in the business community, as an adult understanding the time and resources both Mr. Fong and his wife, Lilly, gave back to this community -- the name of Wing Fong had been made indelible on the fabric of old and modern Las Vegas," Greenspun said. "Wing Fong is one of the real pioneers of Las Vegas. He has left a family and a legacy that will stand the test of time.
"Las Vegas has lost a vital part of what made us the envy of the rest of the country."
In 1968 Fong was appointed a member of the Nevada Small Business Advisory Council and also served on the Clark County School Planning Council and Southern Nevada Human Relations Commission. He also was vice president of the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce at that time.
Fong served as director of Nevada State Bank and was a major stockholder in Frontier Savings and Loan. In 1978 he shelled out $4.6 million to buy the First National Bank building downtown, then the second largest office building in Las Vegas.
Fong served on the board of trustees for Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital, which today is the Clark County-run University Medical Center.
Kenneth Fong cited equal rights and education as causes especially close to his father's heart. He said he and his sister both have college degrees in part because of their father's passion.
"He was very strong on having a good education and making sure we follow the right path of being honorable with people and respectful of other people with different backgrounds," Kenneth Fong said.
Wing was honored in March by the Lions Club in conjunction with the Las Vegas Centennial for his contributions to the Las Vegas community.
Beneficiaries of his philanthropies have included UNLV academic and sports programs and St. Jude's Ranch for Children, of which he was a director.
Fong was one-time co-chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and past director of both the American Cancer Society and the International Optimist Club.
His philanthropy at UNLV began when the institution was called Nevada Southern University and he served on the Grand Founders Fund Drive that led to the establishment of what is today the UNLV Performing Arts Center.
Fong and his wife also raised funds to build the Central Plaza that connects the Judy Bayley Theatre to Artemus Ham Musical Hall.
Pat Goodall, UNLV's president from 1979 to 1984, knew Fong through his involvement with UNLV, the First Presbyterian Church and the Las Vegas Rotary Club.
"Both of them (Lilly and Wing) were always very interested in the role of minorities, especially the Chinese in Nevada," Goodall said. "Anytime someone talked about the history or wrote about the history of Nevada they would make sure the history of Chinese workers was well represented."
Fong married the former Lilly Hing in 1950.
An elementary school is named for both of them and the geoscience building at the University of Nevada Las Vegas is named for Lilly, who died in March 2002.
He is survived by a son, Kenneth Fong; a daughter, Susan Fong-Brattain; and two grandchildren.
Bunkers Mortuary is handling funeral arrangements, with services to be scheduled.
The family asks that donations in their father's memory be made to the Wing and Lilly Fong Scholarship Endowment for students studying the Chinese language at UNLV. Checks should be made out to the Board of regents care of the UNLV Foundation, Box 451006 Las Vegas 89154-1006 and should specify the Wing and Lilley Fong Scholarship Endowment.