Remembering William N. Pennington

President Marc A. Johnson
June 16, 2011

Born in Lebanon, Kansas on March 24, 1923, Pennington grew up in Smith Center, Kansas during the Great Depression. His family struggled in those difficult times, eventually losing their family farm during the Dust Bowl years. Pennington was imbued with these early life experiences and over time they became the basis for the words which he lived his life by—“I never set goals for myself, they are too limiting.”

In 1934, his family moved to Piedmont, California where he went on to graduate from high school and attend the University of California at Berkeley where he played football until sidelined by a knee injury. World War II interrupted his college studies so he joined the Army Air Corps and became a bomber pilot. This marked the beginning of his life long interest in aviation.

In 1962, Pennington moved to Reno to start a career. He began a half-century of oil drilling in northern Nevada. In time, he became one of the largest oil producers in Nevada, though it was never his primary business activity.

While living and working in Reno, he developed an interest in the gaming industry. In the late 60’s , he started a company that designed and built electronic gaming devices. Bill Pennington was the first person to bring pure electronic gaming devices into the gaming world. Electronic engineers,electronic technicians , and service people were assembled for the first time ever in a brand new segment of the gaming industry- electronics. These new electronic devices were the first licensed by the State of Nevada or any other gaming authority around the world. While he was growing that company and placing his machines with casinos in Las Vegas and Reno, he began searching for an opportunity to acquire a casino.

In 1974 he and his new partner William Bennett acquired the financially troubled Circus Circus in Las Vegas. At about the same time, Pennington sold his electronic gaming machine company which, when later joined with two other companies, became International Gaming Technology (IGT). The Partners soon recognized the importance of transforming Las Vegas into an entertainment center for all ages and quickly reversed the financial woes of Circus Circus into one of the gaming industry’s phenomenal successes.

By the end of 1974, Circus Circus was producing substantial profits. In the following year, they opened a second 15-story hotel tower that provided an additional 395 rooms. Four years later, Pennington and Bennett duplicated the Las Vegas operations and opened a second Circus Circus in Reno in a space that had formerly been the Grey Reid department store. The Reno casino was accompanied by a 103 room hotel.

In the early 1980’s, Circus Circus was among the leading gaming companies to tap new financial markets to fuel its growth and became one of the first gaming entities to offer shares on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The company went public on October 25, 1983 opening at $15 per share. By the end of the day, Circus Circus enterprises, Inc. was trading at $16.87- and went on to be one of the most successful IPO’s of the era.

The partners acquired the Edgewater in Laughlin, Nevada and later the Colorado Belle. These pioneers of the gaming industry went on to extend the famous Las Vegas Strip south with Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay. When it was completed in 1990, the Excalibur in Las Vegas was the largest hotel in the world with more than 4,200 rooms.

The Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas debuted in 1994 and he unique pyramid design featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

Bill Pennington experienced a near-fatal boating accident at Lake Tahoe after his boat capsized and he was left lying under 25 feet of water for eight minutes. He was given a zero chance to live, but he beat the odds. However it was a good lesson for him to “stop and smell the roses.” So he retired from day-to-day business operations, but remained on the Circus Circus Board of Directors.

As with everything in life, Pennington pursued philanthropy with a sense of enthusiasm, purpose and commitment.

In 1989, he formed the William N. Pennington Foundation as part of an even broader commitment to charity. As Pennington wrote at the time, “Having grown up in the Great Depression, when my family face difficult times, I know very well the hardships that can befall anyone at any time. During my years in business, I was fortunate to work with thousands of wonderful employees, most of the Nevadans. I am grateful to all of the for their hard work, commitment and friendship. Their efforts helped create this Foundation, and I hope the Foundation will, in turn, help the future generations of Nevadans for many years to come.

According to the William N. Pennington Foundation mission statement, the Foundation supports organizations primarily in the State of Nevada, with an emphasis on Reno and northern Nevada. The focus is upon education and medicine to build a broad base to help people and families through difficult times.

As a philanthropist, Pennington supported big building projects benefiting many non-profit organizations. His major gifts were all in Reno, including buildings at the University of Nevada, the William N. Pennington Emergency Department at St Mary’s Hospital; the William N. Pennington Pediatric Nursery facility at Renown Hospital as well as numerous scholarships at the University of Nevada and Truckee Meadows Community College. Additionally, he made substantial gifts through his foundation to many charitable organizations.

Pennington’s lifelong interest in construction included several of his own personal residences, which he always built on a large scale. He also designed and built racing boats and eventually substantial motor yachts, starting with his own yacht followed by others built for sale.

His hobbies were many and he pursued them with the same passion he brought to all his other endeavors in life, He flew his own airplane and later owned various aircraft. He developed agricultural operations in South Dakota where he also enjoyed hunting pheasants. Characteristically, he was successful even in the farming business. He enjoyed boating at Lake Tahoe and expanded his interest to Europe and the Caribbean. He liked to invited friends to travel with him on his 172 foot yacht, Intrepid, to various ports around the world.

Pennington won many awards in his career. For many years he was a member of the “Forbes 400.” He was particularly proud of his membership in the American Academy of Achievement, induction into Nevada’s Business Hall of Fame and his recognition by the University of Nevada, Reno as a Distinguished Nevadan and Recipient of an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters.