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Fond memories of a Las Vegas original

Jan 14, 2003 6:44 AM

Bill Bennett was an original. In the truest sense he was a pioneer and a visionary. And last Friday, hundreds turned out to honor the gaming giant in a memorial service held at Artemus Ham Hall on the UNLV campus.

In attendance were long-time employees and friends; Governor Kenny Guinn; members of the Las Vegas police department; John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel and Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union; Dr. Carol C. Harter, president of the UNLV Philanthropic Contributions to UNLV; and many people in the gaming industry.

The ceremony was a simple but moving one, and it included the presentation of the colors, music, readings, and reflections. Many of the presenters reminisced about special moments with Bill Bennett, stressing his business successes and tremendous impact on Las Vegas, his philanthropic nature and his kindness toward others.

Bill Bennett died at the age of 78 just three days before Christmas. His passing left an emptiness under the Christmas trees of fans of gaming here in Las Vegas and everywhere.

It’s appropriate that Bennett’s service was held on the UNLV campus. He very generously supported the university, as well as organizations like the Boy Scouts of America.

"It’s more fun to give it way than it was to make it!" Bill once remarked.

If there’s anything that characterizes Bill Bennett’s nature, besides his kindness and sincerity, it was a driving energy that ensured he would follow through on any endeavor he undertook.

I recall when Bill originally "retired" from Circus Circus Enterprises (now Mandalay Resorts) in 1994. That "retirement" lasted about three weeks!

"I was bored to death," Bill said.

So what did he do? He went out and bought another hotel, the Hacienda.

But it was shortly after that when the corporate "clowns" at Circus Circus, as he called them, bought out his contract, and Bill Bennett was gone from the company he built.

"I said fine, you can have it," Bill said.

After that, Bill bought Paul Lowden’s Sahara, which wasn’t the greatest property on the Strip ("I should have torn it down and started over"), but he ended up spending $250 million renovating the property. He also came away from the deal with great acreage at the southwest corner of Sahara and the Strip, as well as 25 acres of land behind the Sahara, across Paradise Road.

One of the great things I enjoyed about Bill Bennett was his candor and willingness to talk simply and to the point. That pales in comparison to today’s corporate executives who speak eloquently about issues that are totally meaningless and non-understandable.

When Bill came to Las Vegas, he started at the bottom of the ladder. In fact, Bill readily admitted that he "did a stupid thing" after 18 years in the furniture business in Phoenix and "lost all my money and had to go through bankruptcy."

But a bankruptcy for Bill was just a hiccup along his road to success. He knew someone at the Del Webb company, and landed a casino job as a host up at Lake Tahoe. Even though he was relatively new to gaming, he saw "a lot of things they were doing wrong."

At the time, the late Sam Boyd was running the Mint in downtown Las Vegas and he was losing money. Well, all of a sudden Bill Bennett was sent to Vegas to run the joint.

Before Bill took over, the casino was losing about $4.5 million a year. After his first year, it made about $10 million and the second year it made double that.

"I though it was pretty easy at the time," Bill said.

The fact that things seem to come "easy" to Bill made him the envy of the gaming industry. When he took over Circus Circus, there were many raised eyebrows, but he kept working at his innovations and the company blossomed.

In the last year or two of his life, Bill took things easier. He had a back operation that laid him up for awhile, but he never lost that fire. He only worked half days and he had help where he had "people doing the legwork."

I recall about a year ago, Bill acknowledged that he wouldn’t "live forever," but he wasn’t interested "in thinking about that."

One thing that he did acknowledge about the hereafter, however, was that "I sure as hell can’t take it with me!"

Maybe not, but you sure left plenty behind, Bill. God bless.