It isn’t any secret that the ultimate gift is giving without expecting anything in return. As the first woman to own a casino in Nevada, for rootin’ tootin’ Jesse Beck, it was second nature. Jessie was a colorful, spirited woman with an independent streak. But to VA – 164, a group of Navy attack pilots who flew the A-4 Skyhawk, she was a woman with a heart of gold.
While on a holiday in Texas, “Pappy” Harold Smith, who owned Harold’s Club in Nevada during the late 1930s, offered Beck a job as a roulette dealer. He noted her quick mathematical skills while she was working as a cashier, post two divorces. Never afraid of a new adventure, Jessie packed her bags and relocated to Reno. She quickly rose through the casino ranks, building a reputation for friendliness and good business sense. This did not go unnoticed by Fred Beck, who owned and operated the keno, poker, pan and horse race booking concessions at Harold’s Club. Not able to resist Jessie’s charm, Fred became Jessie’s third husband. When Fred died in 1954, Jessie, now a widow, took over the operations.
She spent most of her time at the casino roaming the floors, and serving her customers, sometimes staying until three in the morning. It was not unlike her to take over a 21 game and deal for hours, which is how she met a young future Navy pilot, Richard Perry who worked part time as a dealer. His dream was to fly jets. Jessie was moved by his story, and took him under her wing. She befriended and encouraged him,often bringing him home for homemade meals. Dick became Jessie’s pseudo-adopted son. It was a proud moment for Jessie when Richard Perry was commissioned in 1957 and winged circa 1958. Part of Naval aviation training took place out at Naval Air Station Fallon, just east of Reno. Jessie would give out baskets of goodies, including playing cards and such from the casino to the young, love-starved pilots.
But good times were not to last. Dick was assigned to VA-164, the Ghostriders who flew the A-4 Skyhawk and was deployed to the Western Pacific to conduct bombing missions in Vietnam. During his cruise time, Jessie continued sending the care packages. In no time, the entire squadron came to know and love the generous gifts sent over from Lady Jessie, as they deemed her. As homage to Beck, Perry had his A-4 painted with Lady Jessie on its side.
Unfortunately, while flying his Lady Jessie, tragedy stuck during Perry’s second WestPac cruise. During the summer of 1967, Perry, now a Lieutenant Commander, served as VA-164’s division lead and led a strike into Haiphong off the USS Oriskany, CVA-34. A surface to air missile struck the underbelly of Dick’s Skyhawk. Watching fuel stream out of his plane, Perry turned toward the Tonkin Gulf, speaking calmly to his wingman watching the disaster in horror. As they reached the coastline, Dick became silent, his A-4 engulfed in flames. As the plane rolled out of control, he ejected about a mile from the shoreline. His chute deployed, but due to massive chest wounds received on impact, Perry remained lifeless in the water. The helo attempting to rescue him came under heavy fire, and it became impossible to retrieve Dick’s body.
As can be expected, upon hearing the news, Jessie was heartbroken. But she forged on, spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars sending care packages to Vietnam servicemen, especially, VA-164. The squadron honored the gracious lady from Reno even after LCDR Dick Perry’s death by displaying her name on each commanding officer’s aircraft. This continued until the squadron was disestablished in 1975.
In 1967, the Nevada Gaming Commission revoked the gaming license of a casino named the Riverside over a dice-cheating scandal, shutting it down in 1968. Shortly after, Beck lost the lease to the concessions at Harold’s in 1970 when the club was sold to the Hughes Corporation, who subsequently terminated most of the club’s staff. Jessie was irate, but was not going to take this latest blow without a fight. In 1971, Beck scraped up the money and bought the Riverside Casino for three million dollars. To the delight of many, she rehired the majority of the former Harold’s Club employees.
Now known as the Gambling Grandmother of Reno, Lady Jessie continued to give back, sharing her good fortunes to support military personnel all over the world. She was bestowed with the Award of Merit, the highest honor the Defense Department can give a civilian, in 1968. In 1969, the governor of Nevada named her a Distinguished Nevadan. She was honored at a reunion of VA-164 and VA -163 pilots in the late 1970s. A lifetime member of the St. Mary’s Hospital Guild, the Washoe County Medical Center League and the VFW Auxilliary, staunch Republican and pro-defense Lady Jessie continued to serve the military she loved.
In 1978, Harrah’s bought out the Riverside Casino which allowed Jessie to finally retire. In 1987, LCDR Richard Perry’s remains were returned, having been recovered previously by native fisherman when washed ashore from the Tonkin Gulf. Twenty years had passed since Lady Jessie had endured his loss. A building had since been dedicated to Dick at the NAS Fallon. Fittingly, this loving warrior was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with our country’s heroes. Family, Ghostriders, and other fellow officers, many by then of flag rank as Dick surely would have been, gathered from far and near, including his adopted mother, Lady Jessie.
On July 17th, 1987, Jessie Beck died at the age of eighty-three. All that knew her described her as a not only a credit to the gaming industry and to the state of Nevada, but a great business woman. However for VA-164, Jessie Beck was honored and remembered as a loving, caring, and generous person. “We all held her in the highest regard. More than anything else, Jessie was a lady.”The Navy’s ideals are honor, courage and committment. Lady Jessie Beck lived out these ideals and became the darling to many of our military. In honor of her service to our country, through her patronage of the mighty Ghostriders of VA-64, AgeView Press is honored to posthumously name Lady Jessie Beck, Belle of Steel #12.