William. S. Boyd

The Namesake

A conversation with William S. Boyd, lead benefactor of the UNLV law school.

One of Bill Boyd’s favorite quotes is, much like himself, straightforward and to the point.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

The short maxim is attributed to Winston Churchill, but Boyd, co-founder and executive chairman of Boyd Gaming and lead benefactor of the UNLV law school, learned the lesson from his mom and dad.

Early Days

William S. Boyd was born Nov. 4, 1931, in Los Angeles to Sam and Mary Boyd. Neither had attended college. In the early years of Bill’s life, the family moved around from Southern California to Hawaii and back again as Sam chased work opportunities, mostly in gaming.

Opportunity is what he found in a fledgling Las Vegas. When the Boyds arrived in 1941, there were only 15,000 residents. Sam took a job as a dealer at the Jackpot Casino, while Bill attended the Fifth Street School and later Las Vegas High School. With virtually no money to his name, Sam methodically worked his way up the casino food chain, from dealer to pit boss to floor manager to shift boss.

“My mom and dad told me I didn’t want to grow up to be a dealer,” Boyd said. “They never had a chance to get an education, and they wanted to make sure I did.”

A decade after the move to Las Vegas, Sam’s break arrived. In 1952 he invested all of the family’s savings and got a bank loan to become an owner-partner at the new Sahara Hotel and Casino. That investment paid off and eventually led to Sam buying property downtown and opening the Mint in 1957 with partners from the Sahara.

Once Sam found some success, he gave back to the community that had given his family so much, including founding the Boys & Girls Clubs in Las Vegas and Henderson.

“At an early age, my mom and dad said: ‘If you’re successful in your chosen profession, you should give back to those who aren’t so successful and are struggling in their lives.’ That’s what we’ve tried to do at Boyd Gaming, the Boyd Foundation, and myself personally,” Boyd said.

Attending Law School

Right around the time Sam was getting into casino ownership, Bill was attending the University of Nevada, Reno (UNLV had yet to be founded). During his junior year he decided to become a lawyer, but it bothered him that without a law school in Nevada he had to go to Utah for his degree.

“It’s expensive to go out of state, and I knew if we had one in Nevada it would certainly be much less expensive,” Boyd said. “I just thought a law school would be such a big thing for the community.”

As his father was opening the Mint, Bill came back to Las Vegas to start a law practice.

“When I practiced, everyone was pretty much in general practice. You got to do a bit of everything, and I thought that was really fun,” Boyd said. “I never knew from day to day what challenge I’d have, whether I’d get a criminal or civil case, an adoption, a lease or business agreement. I was always looking forward to doing something different. It was exciting.”

In 1961 Bill got his first entry into the gaming business. Paul Perry was interested in owning a casino in Henderson, and he needed a lawyer and investors. Bill agreed to be his lawyer, took his fee in stock, and also brought his father in as an investor. They opened the Eldorado in 1962, and in 1966 the Boyd family bought out the other partners at a nice profit.

Founding Boyd Gaming

After practicing law for 15 years, Bill and Sam joined forces to found Boyd Gaming on Jan. 1, 1975, when they opened the California Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas. Bill learned the business from his father; and if there was ever a disagreement, he deferred to the elder Boyd’s judgment.

“My dad loved his work, and he thought there was no substitute for hard work,” Boyd said. “The other thing I learned from him is that everything in life doesn’t always work exactly the way you wanted it to work. The key is to move on and be innovative in finding something that does work.”

The California struggled after opening, and the Boyds worried about making payroll each month. From his time on the islands, Sam knew that Hawaiians enjoyed gaming, so he sent the casino chefs to Hawaii to learn new dishes and heavily marketed the property on the islands. The move paid off, and the Hawaiian market continues to be strong in Las Vegas to this day.

Bill, meanwhile, gained a reputation in gaming as a straight shooter. “Bill is the perfect example of a handshake person, his handshake is bond,” said Donald Snyder, UNLV’s presidential advisor for strategic initiatives and former president of Boyd Gaming. “Bill is one of those people who, when you meet him, what you see is what you get.”

Larry Ruvo, founder of Southern Wine and Spirits and a longtime friend, said Bill is a man who you know will do what he says. Ruvo, therefore, had no problem forgoing actual contracts for a “handshake over the phone” to seal a deal between the two a few years ago.

“Bill always made you feel like you’re the only person in the meeting,” Ruvo said. “He’s just about his family, his employees, and anything to make Las Vegas better. That’s Bill Boyd.”

Setting the Stardust Straight

After the California proved successful, Boyd Gaming opened Sam’s Town in 1979 and continued to build its reputation as gaming operators with integrity. In 1983, when the Nevada Gaming Commission exposed a skimming operation at the Stardust, they asked Boyd Gaming to step in as operator.

“They told me if we don’t get someone in there in the next 72 hours, we’ll have to close the Stardust,” Boyd said. “I knew there were over 2,000 jobs at stake, so I went back and talked to my dad and the board quickly. I thought Southern Nevada had been so good to us, we couldn’t possibly let them close the Stardust.”

The Boyds turned the property around and eventually purchased it. The rebound of the Stardust bolstered Boyd Gaming’s reputation and also proved they could move from the downtown casino market onto the Strip. Shortly after Sam died in 1993, Boyd Gaming started to expand nationally as gaming became legal in other parts of the country. Today, the company operates 22 properties in seven states. Bill has built a reputation as a community-oriented, hands-on manager.

A Personal Touch

Friends and colleagues who take property tours with him marvel at how many employees and customers he knows by name.

“When Bill asks how was your weekend, he’s not asking about the business, he’s asking about you as an individual. That’s pretty rare,” said Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith. “Bill cares about the company and its team members, and he cares about the community. It’s been a real privilege to have worked with him all these years because he is unique in today’s corporate world.”

In the mid-’90s Bill joined the movement to build a law school in Nevada. He worked his community connections and went to Carson City to lobby the Legislature along with gubernatorial candidate Kenny Guinn. In 1997 the Legislature approved the move, and in 1998 the William S. Boyd School of Law welcomed its first class. Bill was instrumental the whole way through, donating $5 million to get the initiative started and then pledging another $25 million to establish the school on solid footing.

“Having an in-state law school improves the practice of law throughout the state,” said Daniel Hamilton, dean of the Boyd School of Law. “You create virtuous circles of ongoing connections. It keeps great students in state, and then they get top jobs in state. In turn, they support the law school and help improve the practice of law. You can’t accomplish that if you’re importing all your lawyers from out of state.”

Bill wanted the school to be affordable, especially to local students, and to also give back by working with partners like the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

“From day one the UNLV law school has had a commitment to community, and it’s very fitting to have Bill Boyd as the founder of the law school,” said Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center and a former Nevada legislator who herself had to leave the state for law school. “Bill is an incredible leader, and his influence at the Boyd School of Law and at Legal Aid has been remarkable. The community is better because of him and all he’s done.”

Bill has shared 32 years with his wife, Judy, has three children, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. And, while he’s never actually attended UNLV, he has dutifully become a rabid Rebels fan.

“He’s mostly low-key, except for moments of intense fandom,” Dean Hamilton said. “He loves Rebels basketball, and the one time I’ve seen him as something other than his customary calm self is when he’s watching a Rebels game.”

A Look Back

Bill Boyd’s life is full of milestones. One thing is clear: Nevada and Las Vegas have had a remarkable impact on his life and work. Today, at the age of 84, he still is working and giving back to the community that has meant so much to him.

Nov. 4, 1931 – William S. Boyd is born in Los Angeles to Sam and Mary Boyd.

1941 – The Boyd family moves to Las Vegas when Sam takes a job at the Jackpot Casino.

1949 – Bill graduates Las Vegas High School and attends the University of Nevada, Reno.

1952 – Bill enrolls in law school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

1953-1955 – Bill is conscripted into the U.S. Army, but narrowly avoids seeing combat as the Korean War ends while he is in basic training.

1957 – Bill graduates from the University of Utah and returns to Las Vegas to pass the bar exam and start his law practice.

1961 – Bill acquires his first interest in a casino when he trades legal services for stock in the Eldorado in Henderson.

Jan. 1, 1975 – After practicing law for more than 15 years, Bill joins his father to found Boyd Gaming and open the California Hotel and Casino.

1979 – Boyd Gaming opens its second property, and the first casino in the eastern valley, when it launches Sam’s Town.

1983 – The Nevada Gaming Commission asks Boyd Gaming to take over the gaming operations at the Stardust, which was under investigation for skimming.

1984 – Boyd Gaming donates $1.5 million to UNLV to replace the AstroTurf at the football stadium, which is subsequently renamed Sam Boyd Stadium.

Feb. 28, 1985 – Boyd Gaming purchases the Stardust and the Fremont Casino.

1993 – Boyd Gaming offers its initial public offering and joins the New York Stock Exchange.

1994 – Boyd Gaming expands outside Nevada and opens Sam’s Town in Tunica, Mississippi. Also, construction begins on the $70 million Fremont Street Experience canopy, a project that Bill was instrumental in bringing to fruition along with Steve Wynn and other casino owners.

1997 – Bill, along with others, goes to Carson City to help lobby the Legislature for a state law school. Then Nevada Gov. Bob Miller signs the law authorizing the creation of the school that year.

1998 – After a $5 million donation from Bill, the William S. Boyd School of Law opens its doors and welcomes its first class.

July 3, 2003 – After first partnering with Steve Wynn, who eventually sold his interest, Boyd Gaming opens the Borgata in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with MGM.

2005 – Bill pledges an additional $25 million to the law school at UNLV.

2015 – Boyd Gaming pledges $2.5 million to help fund a new building for the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at UNLV.

May 21, 2016 – Bill is honored at the annual Keep Memory Alive Power of Love Gala, a fundraiser for the Lou Ruvo Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health, with the Community Leadership Award.

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