In 1989, Verna Harrah donated $5 million to the UNLV College of Hotel Administration in honor of her late husband, gaming pioneer William Fisk Harrah. The 23-year-old college was proud to finally inherit a namesake. It somehow made things feel more official.
As the college now celebrates its 50th anniversary, the name has been updated to reflect an industry that has progressed past traditional hotel-centric operations and into other areas, such as restaurants, entertainment, meetings and events, golf, and gaming. Now, the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality embraces this evolution while still preserving the legacy of the college's namesake.
Looking Back at William F. Harrah
A California native, William F. Harrah was born into the gaming industry. His father, an attorney and businessman, operated games and concessions off the boardwalk in Venice Beach after he lost much of his wealth during the Great Depression. Harrah was recruited to help run the family’s bingo-style facility, but he disagreed with his father’s habit of focusing on profit rather than guests. At 22, he bought out his father’s interest in the business for $500 and heavily emphasized on providing quality customer service.
Under Harrah’s new direction, the game was quite successful, however, the establishment was periodically shut down by authorities who considered the game to be illegal gambling. So, Harrah packed his bags and headed where gaming was legal – Nevada.
Over the next decade, Harrah owned a series of small bingo parlors and bars in downtown Reno before opening his first casino in 1946. He later expanded into Lake Tahoe, adding hotels to both properties as a natural extension. As his businesses matured, Harrah left the daily operations to his top executives while he devoted much of his spare time and money to an extensive collection of 1,400 automobiles. Some are now displayed at the National Automobile Museum in Reno and the Las Vegas Car Museum at The LINQ.
Harrah died in June 1978 from complications during heart surgery in Rochester, Minnesota. The Holiday Inn acquired Harrah’s properties in 1980 and was instrumental in facilitating the family’s donation to the college almost a decade later.
Today, the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality is ranked one of the world's top hospitality programs – a legacy worthy of this gaming pioneer.