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October 21, 2014

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CLAUDINE WILLIAMS: 1921-2009:

Gaming trailblazer had ‘big Texas heart’

State’s first female casino owner, champion of child welfare, education, dies

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SUN FILE PHOTO

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 and it became Harrah’s, has died. Williams, who courageously held her own against the men who ran gaming in town, in 1992 became the first woman inducted into the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame.

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Claudine Williams

Throughout her storied gaming career, which began when she was a 15-year-old waitress in a Texas gambling house owned by legendary casino boss Benny Binion, Claudine Williams had the golden touch.

“She could walk through her casino and tell you which slot machines were making money and which were not just by looking at the customers who were playing them,” said longtime friend Thalia Dondero, a former Clark County commissioner. “Claudine was an astute, wise woman who made her mark during her long association with the gaming industry.”

Claudine Barbara Williams, who, with her late husband, Shelby Williams, owned and operated the old Silver Slipper casino and later the Holiday Casino and its successor, Harrah’s, died Wednesday at her Las Vegas home after a lengthy illness. She was 88.

Services are pending for the philanthropist, a champion of child welfare and education who served on the UNLV board of trustees.

Former President Bill Clinton called her “a good friend and early supporter of mine.”

“When I asked her to participate in my economic forum after I was first elected in 1992, Claudine was anxious to help and I was grateful for that help,” Clinton said. “I know she will be missed by her Las Vegas community. Hillary and I will miss her friendship.”

Williams was the first woman to own a Nevada casino, to be admitted into the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame and to head a Nevada financial institution.

Williams was “one of those pioneers who transformed our city’s major industry and helped make Las Vegas synonymous with fun and fair value,” said Las Vegas Sun Publisher Barbara Greenspun. “More important, though, has been the size of her big Texas heart, which compelled her to do so much good for so many people in our community. She will be remembered for her compassion and her willingness to give to others. My heart goes out to her family who I join in celebrating a remarkable life.”

Former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, a top Harrah’s executive, called Williams “a remarkable woman of grace, tenacity, intellect, integrity, ethics and community involvement. She was an icon.”

Williams stepped down as chairwoman of the resort in the late 1990s, but retained the title of director of community relations “and she was our company’s spiritual leader,” Jones said.

Businesswoman Amy Ayoub said Williams succeeded in gaming because “she never expected to get any special treatment just because she was a woman working in a male-dominated profession.

“Claudine always said that if you put your head down and do your work, you will be rewarded,” said Ayoub, who in the 1970s was Williams’ secretary at the Holiday Casino.

Born in Mansfield, La., to Robert and Hazel Williams on March 17, 1921, Claudine was raised by her mother and grandmother in nearby Logansport and Shreveport. She dropped out of high school to pursue her career in gaming — a decision she later called “my only regret” in life.

At 15, Williams moved to Texas and lied about her age to get a job in a Dallas casino nightclub operated by Binion, who later came to Las Vegas and founded Binion’s on Fremont Street.

Williams bought her first gaming establishment — a Houston steakhouse/casino — before she was 21 years old. A banker loaned her $5,000 for the business after she promised on her word to repay him.

She not only repaid it ahead of schedule but parlayed the casino’s profits to launch her business empire.

At that time, she was working with and dating a man of the same last name, Shelby Williams. The two married on Feb. 19, 1950, and in 1964 moved to Las Vegas, where they bought the old Silver Slipper on the Strip.

In 1969 they sold it to billionaire Howard Hughes and built the Holiday Casino across from Caesars Palace. It opened on July 2, 1973.

When her husband died in 1977, Claudine became the first woman casino president and general manager in Nevada gaming history.

In 1983 she sold her resort to the Holiday Inn Corp. — in 1992 it became Harrah’s — and Williams became longtime chairman of the resort’s board of directors, overseeing a $200 million renovation that included construction of a 35-story, 1,000-room tower.

She was inducted into the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame on Sept. 24, 1992.

But the body of Williams’ work went far beyond the gaming industry.

In 1981 Williams, as co-founder of the American Bank of Commerce (now Nevada Commerce Bank), became the first woman in Nevada to serve as chairman of a bank’s board of directors.

She served on the UNLV board of trustees and the UNLV Foundation, and her philanthropy provided scholarships and student housing.

In the 1980s Williams served as a director of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and served on the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

Williams also served on the boards of International Game Technology, the Nevada Gaming Foundation for Educational Excellence, the National Judicial College and Sunrise Hospital.

She also was a member of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce board for eight years, serving as chairwoman from 1990 to 1991.

Williams’ humanitarian work includes having served as past chairwoman of the board of trustees of St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Boulder City.

Williams is survived by her son, Michael Shelby Williams of New York; stepson, Scott Noe of Houston; stepdaughter, Susan Noe of Houston; two grandsons; and several nieces and nephews.

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