One day in 1964, a cadre of Las Vegas casino bosses came to Atlantic City to sit around Mildred Fox’s white-clothed table in the Colony Room at Fox Manor Hotel.

The men — “gangster types,” her son Thomas recalls — were there to discuss Fox’s dream of bringing legal gambling to the seaside resort. The meeting dragged on for more than an hour before Fox sent them packing.

“No, I’m not for sale,” she said. “But thanks for coming.”

While casino gambling wouldn’t come to Atlantic City for more than a decade, the outspoken hotelier had been championing the idea as a solution to the city’s economic woes since at least 1958.

Thomas Fox, 68, of Brigantine, said his mother had enough foresight to know the seaside resort days were over. Air travel meant vacationers were looking abroad and something drastic was needed to reverse the steady decline.

“Casinos were not something you had to spend a lot of dollars to do,” he said. “They were something free enterprise could build and the state could regulate.”

Fox was born in 1910 to a middle-class family, grew up in Hammonton and moved to Atlantic City in the 1930s with her husband Thomas. Together, they started leasing rental properties in the bustling resort. At the start of World War II, when the military took over Atlantic City’s larger hotels, they purchased and renovated what would become the Fox Manor Hotel on Pacific Avenue.

“The hotels had been taken over for training and hospitals,” Thomas Fox said. “There was a need for places for family members to stay.”

Fox’s husband was drafted into the Army before renovations had been completed, so she took over operations herself.

“My mother finished the thing, but she was always right there,” her son said. “She had a good head for business and she did it very, very well.”

Together, Thomas Fox, said his parents were forward-thinking.

Fox Manor was one of the early adopters of air conditioning, had the first color television in the city and even offered vacation packages at a time when no other hotels were.

“They had coupons for rolling chair rides, movie tickets, swimming pool access at the Ambassador pool, roller skating in Ventnor and ice skating when it was available at Convention Hall,” he said.

Fox kept her dream of an Atlantic City casino industry alive.

A Democrat in an area dominated by Republicans, including her own husband, Fox faced an uphill battle. But she had persistence and ingenuity on her side, her son said.

From her leadership positions within the Women’s Division of the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce and other organizations, she lobbied politicians incessantly. When she was finally able to bring the cause to a referendum in 1974, its backers in the state legislature used her as a vocal supporter in the media and in roundtable meetings statewide.

While the initial referendum failed, voters finally approved the measure two years later.

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

609-272-7256