Lilly Fong (1925-2002) nee Hing, was a champion for education throughout her lifetime. Lilly’s deep-rooted belief in education stemmed from her childhood, instilled by her parents. Her father was known to quote the teachings of Confucius as he agreed that ‘education was the equalizer of all’ and she, along with her nine siblings, all would gain future college degrees.
Lilly met her husband Wing Fong, while she was studying at the University of Southern California. Wing was taking courses there and graduated from Woodbury College in 1950 with a Bachelor’s degree in Business. Wing had already been in the US since 1939, when he joined his Fong relatives in the restaurant business and attended elementary through high school in Las Vegas. It was here they returned to in 1950 after they were married, where Lilly applied for a teaching job. The Superintendent of the Clark County School District initially rejected Lilly’s application to teach for no stated reason. Lilly did not give up and she appealed to the Clark County School District Board of Trustees because she already had her teaching credentials and Bachelor of Education degree from Arizona State University in addition to prior teaching experience in Southern California. Her appeal impressed positively the Clark County School District Board of Trustees who voted approval of her application to teach. The School District Board of Trustees then directed the Superintendent to hire Lilly as an elementary school teacher at the Fifth Street School and later West Charleston School, which he reluctantly did. Lilly overcame his discrimination becoming the first Asian American elementary school teacher in Nevada. She taught until 1955 and offered Chinese language classes to any students who wanted to learn Chinese on Saturdays. She did many creative things such as having her students build a float for the Nevada Day Parade. Lilly remained involved in the school’s activities as she raised her family; she was given a lifetime membership in the West Charleston PTA and was honored as Clark County’s Mother of the Year.
Wing also encountered some discrimination when securing employment, and so he started his own grocery store, partnering later with his two uncles to build the much–loved Chinese restaurant Fong’s Garden in 1955. They also built a shopping center and residential accommodation, leading Wing to form the Fong realty business, in which Lilly had an active role sometimes showing houses to potential buyers as one of the company’s Sales Associate. In 1963 Wing was selected to serve on the Nevada State Bank Board of Directors until his death in 2005. He shared his real estate and business experience in the Nevada State Bank Board’s Loan Committee and Trust Committee. Wing was both a real estate developer and banker in the Las Vegas economy.
Lilly’s vision and passion for education continued and she saw that UNLV needed to grow and set about raising money; securing millions of dollars over the years in funding and donations, in addition to the personal contributions of the Fong family. During this time, Wing was also chairman of the Grand Founders Fundraising Committee for the UNLV Performing Arts Center, and together they convinced major donors, such as Judy Bayley and Artemus Ham Jr., to support financially, resulting in the Judy Bayley Theatre and the Artemus Ham Hall at UNLV today.
Lilly was elected as Regent for the University of Nevada System in 1974 and served for ten years as the first Asian American elected Nevadan official to do so. She also completed her Master’s degree in Educational Administration from UNLV in 1982.
Other projects she aided in included advocating to keep UNLV’s Tonopah Hall as a dorm to attract more out-of-state students, and she assisted today’s College of Southern Nevada to secure their west campus on West Charleston near Torrey Pines. She also established an endowment fund for the first Chinese Language Program in the Department of Foreign Languages and scholarship funds for both UNLV and the College of Southern Nevada.
Lilly also served as state president of the American Association of University Women: vice chairman, governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, member of U.S. Small Business Advisory Council, Member of Opportunity Village Advisory Board, and member of the Las Vegas Symphony Board of Directors.
In 1985, UNLV named the Lilly Fong Geoscience Building in recognition of her many dedicated years serving local education and she was named a Distinguished Nevadan in 1998 with her husband. Clark County School District named Wing and Lilly Fong Elementary School at Las Vegas in honor of the family’s many years of outstanding local community service.
We thank the Fong family and Dr. Sue Fawn Chung for their contribution and review of Lilly's biography.