Las Vegas Sun

May 24, 2024


Casino magnate’s wife remembered for philanthropy, passion and kindness

Verna Harrah died Friday at the age of 68

Verna Harrah, widow of casino mogul Bill Harrah, died Friday at the age of 68.

Verna Harrah, widow of casino mogul Bill Harrah, died Friday at the age of 68.

During a lifetime that took her from the small towns of Idaho to the casinos of Reno and Las Vegas, and eventually to movie sets in Hollywood, Verna Harrah’s magnetic personality and willingness to lend a hand no matter the situation helped her positively impact the lives of countless people, her friends say.

Harrah, the widow of the late casino magnate Bill Harrah, died Friday at the age of 68.

Born in Nampa, Idaho, she met Bill Harrah while she was working as a real estate agent in Reno. The couple wed in 1974, but their marriage was cut short when Bill Harrah died during heart surgery in 1978.

After a few years living in Idaho and San Francisco, Verna Harrah’s love of storytelling drew her to Southern California, where she launched her own production company that went on to produce films like “Anaconda,” “Who’s Your Daddy?” and “The Canyon.”

“She loved telling stories, and she was good at it,” said Clint Culpepper, president of Sony Pictures’ Screen Gems. “You’d be on the edge of your seat listening to her and be spellbound by the way she told stories.”

Friends described Verna Harrah as a determined, self-confident and generous woman who put her wealth to use helping others in need.

Her philanthropic activities included helping establish the Rape Foundation and funding a clinic at the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, which provided medical and counseling services to victims of sexual abuse. Verna Harrah wasn’t afraid to get hands-on, said Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Foundation, and she could often be found playing with the children at the center.

“She was all about hope and healing,” Abarbanel said. “She was an informed, persuasive advocate. She was a person who it was hard to say no to. I think she was optimistic about overcoming challenges and believing in the resilience of people.”

Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier described Verna Harrah as an open-minded person who took an interest in the lives of others.

“She was always there, constantly giving of herself,” Poitier said. “For people who were in need, she was always available and giving of her time and her resources.”

Verna Harrah also was instrumental in getting the hotel college at UNLV renamed after her husband and made a multimillion-dollar gift to the school to bring in new faculty and enhance the academic programs there.

“She had a very happy marriage to Bill Harrah,” said Phil Satre, a former CEO of Harrah’s Gaming Group, who worked with Verna Harrah to arrange the donation. “She shared his passions for travel, for his automobiles.”

Outside of her professional life, Harrah was remembered by friends as an intellectually curious person who was constantly reading or watching the news. Her kindness and infectious laugh made her many lifelong friends, Culpepper said.

“She collected good people. She stood for so many things that she would not compromise on, and she expected the people around her to have principles, too,” he said.

Survivors include her children, Richard Harrah and Samantha Coghlan, and grandchildren, Avery, Wyatt, Ozzy and Cash.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

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