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Wing and Lilly Fong left mark on Las Vegas through education, philanthropy

Wing and Lilly Fong Elementary School, 2200 James Bilbray Drive, honors a Las Vegas couple well-known for their contributions to the community and to education.

Lilly Fong died in 2002 at age 76. Wing Fong, who died three years later at 79, preferred not to be called a tycoon but rather a "builder."

This builder came from meager means, the son of rice farmers in China. His parents died when he was a child, and his uncles brought him to Las Vegas. He was 13 and worked as a dishwasher in his uncles’ downtown restaurant, the Silver Cafe.

Wing Fong’s ambition to better himself led to being a bookkeeper, then a grocery store operator, then an apartment developer. Soon, he was pioneering shopping centers, most notably Fong’s Garden in 1955 and the Imperial Plaza in 1963. That same year, he opened a restaurant, Fong’s Garden.

Son Kenneth Fong recalled how his father was a sharp businessman, but one with a heart. The grocery store contained slot machines, and one woman gambled away her grocery money.

"He had the compassion to give back the money so she could have groceries for her family," Kenneth Fong said in the book "Fifty Years of Nevada Spirit." "He didn’t like seeing people lose their money."

Through his business dealings, Wing Fong dealt often with Nevada State Bank and was asked to be on its board in 1963. It was a position he would hold until his death.

His civic association included the Las Vegas Rotary Club, the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, Opportunity Village, St. Jude’s Ranch for Children and the National Conference for Community and Justice.

Longtime Las Vegas attorney James "Bucky" Buchanan once said that Wing Fong’s handshake was all that was needed to strike a deal.

"He was a man of few words, but his words were as good as gold," Buchanan said.

Lilly Fong was the eldest of 10 children, and her parents emigrated from China to America, where they operated a restaurant/grocery store. She was born in Arizona.

Lilly Fong was the first in her family to earn a college degree. She met her future husband there, and they were married in 1950. About that time, he was the manager of the Las Vegas Bottling Co. Lilly Fong became a schoolteacher. Besides Kenneth, the couple had one daughter, Susan.

Lilly Fong was active in the community as state president of the American Association of University Women. She served on the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women as education vice chairwoman. She was a member of the Las Vegas Symphony’s board of directors and the Small Business Advisory Council, and served on Opportunity Village’s advisory board.

"Wing was one of the first people I called 30 years ago," said Linda Smith, chief development officer for Opportunity Village, recalling its early days when she was trying to get funding. "It was a cold call. I just knew he was a prominent businessman. He came across town, sat down and spoke with me and wrote me a check. I thought, ‘Holy cow, that’s the easiest "ask" (funding request) I ever made.’ "

Perhaps the couple’s biggest contribution was to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Wing and Lilly Fong were instrumental in seeing it become a full-fledged institution. In 1968, he was the chief fundraiser for the Judy Bayley Theatre and the Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall.

Lilly Fong was on the university’s Board of Regents for 10 years. The geoscience building was named after her because she was instrumental in raising $3 million for the school.

Andrew Hanson, associate professor of geosciences at UNLV, said the Fongs’ influence has translated into national, if not global, implications. How? Two of the department’s faculty members are recognized as world exerts on Carlin-type gold deposits, which have been in the news as of late.

Such deposits yield approximately 6 million ounces a year — about 8 percent of worldwide gold production — and mining is Nevada’s second- highest source of income.

"Obviously, there’s a direct connection to the department and the economy of Nevada," Hanson said.

Also, more of the students recruited by Exxon Mobil in the past five years have come from UNLV than any other of the 45 universities where the petroleum giant recruits. In addition, Hanson said, other departments’ graduate students are at the forefront of working on water supply issues.

What other son of a rice farmer has gone on to have such a legacy?

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 387-2949.

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