Bill Downey’s career started in a seminary, ran into the trenches of Atlantic City politics and ended in a casino boardroom.
His first adult job was in the Society of Jesus — better known as the Jesuit order of Catholic priests. From there, his resume included stops as executive director of the Atlantic City Housing Authority, the city’s Casino Association and the Atlantic County Improvement Authority. He retired as vice president at Showboat Casino Hotel.
Along the way, Downey got into politics in his adopted hometown, losing a 1976 race for Atlantic City Commission. But he had more electoral success that year backing the statewide vote to legalize casinos in Atlantic City. Later, he helped get a new convention center built in the city, and served on everything from the city’s school board to the Bishop’s Commission on Social Justice.
His family emphasizes that Downey, who died last month at 81, was never ordained as a priest. He was still in training, teaching Latin and Greek at a Catholic high school, when he left the Jesuits in 1961 to work at Philadelphia’s redevelopment agency.
He met his wife, Marguerite, in 1963. By 1966, the two were married and living in Atlantic City, with the first of their five kids, also named Bill. Big Bill had gotten a job in the redevelopment end of the Atlantic City Housing Authority in 1964, the year the Democratic National Convention came to town — and showed how desperately the city needed redeveloping.
His boss was Pauline Hill, whose attempt to rebuild the South Inlet led to 80 acres that stayed empty for decades — the infamous “Pauline’s Prairie.” When Downey took over in 1972, some critics took to calling it “Downey’s Desert.”
But Downey tried everything he could to turn the city around, including helping lead the campaign for casinos. Then-Assemblyman Steven Perskie, of Margate, says Downey’s specialty was countering religious opposition.
That work included a five-page letter to the New Jersey Catholic Conference that quoted religious philosophers — including the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola — on why the church should stay neutral on the vote.
“He certainly was the go-to guy for reaching into the church,” Perskie says. “That letter wasn’t casually tossed off. ... He believed every word of it. ... Atlantic City, before the referendum and during it, was lucky to have him.”
And Downey never left the city, when so many others did. He and Marguerite stayed and raised their kids in Chelsea, and Bill moved on to other projects, including a new convention center and the rest of a career that so closely tracked modern Atlantic City history — and along the way, made some history, too.
A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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