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Bernie Goldstein
Bernie Goldstein

Bernard "Bernie" Goldstein, 80, who got his start in business as a scrap metal dealer and became a major player in America's gambling empire, died Sunday in Trinity Pathway Hospice, Bettendorf.

"I'm just a scrap dealer who did good," Goldstein once said.

He was considered to be the father of riverboat gambling who wore a gruff exterior, but was a softie when away from the business table.

His stake in the gambling industry - and other businesses - is said to have created jobs for as many as 100,000 people.

Cancer, which was diagnosed last autumn, slowed Goldstein down, associates said, but only a month ago he was at a Bettendorf City Council meeting to receive a special honor and salute from the city.

He looked pale and wan at the meeting but graciously smiled and shook hands all around as he received the honor.

Under Jewish custom, a visiting period, called "sitting shiva," will follow a funeral and burial. It is the custom that this is reserved for close family and friends. Wheelan-Pressley Funeral Home, Rock Island, is handling arrangements.

Goldstein, known casually as Bernie, was an affable businessman with a cunning ability to strike a deal.

"Don't make me out as a mogul," he once said in an interview with the Quad-City Times. "I'm just plain like everyone else."

"He was a very common guy, but a tough negotiator. To me, he was like a grandpa," said Decker Ploehn, city administrator in Bettendorf, where his Alter Company was headquartered and his Isle of Capri casino empire flourished.

"His Bettendorf Isle of Capri interests - hotels and casino - involve at least $100 million," Bettendorf Mayor Mike Freemire said.

"Bernie knew the art of the deal, but it was in him to understand the impact it would have on people," Freemire said. "He may have appeared gruff, but there was kindness behind whatever he did. You could work with him; he would not let you stumble and fall. He was an all-around good guy."

Though his home had been in both Moline and Florida, he always considered himself "a local boy." Recently, he said he was proud that Davenport's Blackhawk Hotel, which once was one of his company's possessions, was finally being restored.

He once said, "I never wanted anything to happen to the hotel. I married my wife in the hotel's Gold Room."

It was riverboat gambling that brought him to the national forefront. Two boats -John Connelly's President in Davenport and Goldstein's Diamond Lady in Bettendorf - were poised to become icons of the river gambling business. Goldstein brought Vanna White of "Wheel of Fortune" to help open his gambling boat. He beat Connelly's opening toss of the dice by only 30 minutes.

Connelly died at his Pittsburgh home in May. He was 83.

"The Bettendorf brothers put a face on Bettendorf. Bernie changed the face of the City of Bettendorf. It went from one era to another," said Joe Hutter, former Iowa state representative.

Accolades kept pouring in on Sunday from throughout the Quad-Cities and the nation.

Goldstein was stern in a casual way. His "business suit" might be a T-shirt and omnipresent suspenders in an office where a million-dollar deal might be surfacing. He would snap his suspenders, disarming opponents.

He held many titles, among them chairman of the board of the Alter Companies and Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc. In the business world, it's generally considered that when the name "Bernie" was mentioned, it would only mean Goldstein.

Attorney Curt Beason, of Davenport, had worked with Goldstein on various legal matters, including the original riverboat gambling legislation.

"Bernie was a blessing to everyone that knew him," Beason said. "Most importantly, I think, he is the founder of riverboat gambling. He created an industry that currently employs hundreds of thousands of people."

Goldstein created development opportunities for communities across the country, Beason said. "To say he was an entrepreneur and a business leader doesn't even begin to describe what sort of contribution he has made. He was very humble about it all - just a great, great human being," Beason said.

Allan Solomon, of Boca Raton, Fla., echoes those sentiments. He first met Goldstein in the early 1980s when he worked for him as an attorney.

"Bernie treated me as a partner in the business," said Solomon, who knew Goldstein almost 30 years. "Until recently, I was executive vice president and general counsel of the Isle and all of its subsidiaries."

He describes Goldstein as "a good guy."

"He told everyone to call him 'Bernie,' no matter who it was. He was down to earth. He had a great sense of humor. He was fun to be around ... to be associated with.

"When you look back at the man's life - and I knew him very well - he was ethical in all of his dealings. He wanted to go the last mile, to be fair with associates, competitors and employees."

The most important thing to Goldstein was his family, Solomon said. "He was devoted to his wife. They married when they were 19 or 20 years old, and they were inseparable. They enjoyed each other, and they lived life to the fullest."

His family was beside him when he died, son Jeff Goldstein said.

"Bernie involved his children and his grandchildren in the business operations and took a lot of pride in their accomplishments. The Frank Sinatra song, ('I Did It) My Way' sums him up," Solomon said."

Goldstein was born in 1929 in Rock Island and grew up in the Quad-Cities. He married his high-school sweetheart Irene (Renee) Alter in 1949. He was only 15 when he graduated from Rock Island High School and earned a law degree from the University of Illinois in 1951. That year he also became a full-time employee at Alter Co., a junk scrap metal business.

"Here, I was, a lawyer, and my first job was to sell junk metal," he said in an interview with the Quad-City Times.

The company burgeoned into a major salvage firm. In addition to building Alter Co. into a multi-state scrap recycling business, he went on to found Alter Barge Line, River/Gulf Grain, Rock Island River Terminal, Azalea Fleet in Louisiana, Blackhawk Fleet in Davenport and Green Bridge Co. He remained chairman of the board of Alter Companies until his death.

He retired to Florida before he began a second career. He was pivotal in lobbying for the original legislation for riverboat gaming in Iowa and opened the nation's first riverboat casino, the M/V Diamond Lady, on April 1, 1991, in Bettendorf.

Goldstein went on to found Casino America. He opened the first riverboat casino in the South, Isle of Capri Casino, in Biloxi, Miss., in 1992. Under his leadership as chief executive officer and chairman of the board, Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc. owned and operated regional casinos in Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado and Florida.

He retired from his role as CEO in 2008 and served as chairman of the board until his death. He also served as chairman of the board and president of Casino Cruises, Inc., which opened and managed the gaming operations of the Par-A-Dice Riverboat Casino in Peoria, Ill., through March 1993.

His community spirit was tapped in 2005 when three hurricanes wreaked havoc on the lives of so many. His compassion led Isle of Capri to keep its employees in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida on the payroll until operations were repaired and reopened.

In 2007, the Goldstein Family Foundation established a scholarship fund at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University. In 2008, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and was named to the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame.

His charitable donations included gifts to philanthropic and community organizations, including the Jewish Federation and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Mary Ellen Chamberlain is president of the Riverboat Development Authority, which holds the license to the Davenport gambling boat.

"It was always a pleasure to work with Bernie - even during his spats with John Connelly. Bernie was a real bell ringer in whatever he did."

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