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August 22, 2019

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Gaming pioneer remembered for honesty, education work

Family, friends mourn former Harrah’s executive at memorial service


Sam Morris

Friends and family gather in a ballroom at Harrah’s during a memorial for Claudine Williams on Saturday.

Claudine Williams memorial

Friends and family gather in a ballroom at Harrah's during a memorial for Claudine Williams on Saturday. Launch slideshow »
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Claudine Williams, who with her husband opened the Holiday Casino on the Strip on July 2, 1973, and continued to run it after he died in 1977 (it became Harrah's) has died. Williams became the first woman enshrined in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame, in 1992.

Family and friends remembered pioneering casino executive Claudine Williams on Saturday for her honest personality, her loyalty and commitment to education.

A memorial service to honor Williams was held Saturday at Harrah’s main ballroom. More than 100 family members and friends gathered at the casino to honor Williams, who died May 13 after a long illness at the age of 88.

Williams was the first woman to own a casino, as well as the first to be inducted into the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame. For many years she served as chairwoman at Harrah’s, which succeeded the Holiday Casino that she and her husband, Shelby, opened in 1973. She was on the board of directors at UNLV. Because she never received a college education – she left high school at age 15 to pursue a career in gaming – Williams dedicated time and funds to giving others that chance.

Speakers at Saturday’s service included former Harrah’s executive Phil Satre, former UNLV president Carol Harter, former Nevada governor and U.S. senator Richard Bryan, Elaine Wynn, County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, longtime Republican operative Sig Rogich and Harrah’s executive Marilyn Winn.

Satre opened with the words he thought best described Williams: elegant, wise, generous, charming, classy, full of grace and legendary. He also mentioned “bejeweled,” which drew laughs from the audience. Williams was known for her taste in jewelry.

“She left (Las Vegas) better than she found it,” he said, adding that Williams invested her heart and soul into her business.

Satre spoke about the words of wisdom Williams imparted to him throughout the years and the employee scholarship she initiated in 2005 to promote higher education. He read a list of 14 people who received the award this year, concluding: “And that is leaving it better than you found it.”

During Bryan’s speech, he marveled at Williams’ courage and tenacity. With a ninth-grade education, he said, she rose through the ranks and became a powerful force in a male-dominated industry.

“In our times we talk a lot about shattering the glass ceiling,” he said. “Long before the wordsmiths of our time coined that expression, Claudine Williams did that.”

Wynn Resorts executive Elaine Wynn regarded Williams as a close friend, role model and mentor “because of the way she made me feel.”

“I knew that she cared for me the very first day we met,” Wynn said.

She paused, collecting herself, and looked down.

“The only time I heard Claudine complain was when we’d run into each other shopping at Neiman’s,” Wynn said, smiling. “She would say she was too fat. I never saw it that way. I understood that a tiny body could never contain a heart that size.”

Toward the end of the service, Rogich quoted a passage from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” altering the words slightly.

“If it were written for Claudine,” he said, “it would’ve read, in part: Her life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in her that nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This is a woman.’”

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