Joel H. Sterns, who helped spearhead the establishment of Atlantic City’s multi-billion-dollar casino gaming industry, died Monday, February 21, at Shands Hospital of the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Mr. Sterns had been flown to the hospital from his Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, home on December 26 for emergency heart surgery. He was 76.
In 1977, Mr. Sterns was engaged by Resorts International, operator of a major casino on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, which was seeking to become the first casino operator in New Jersey after the state passed a referendum in 1976, to allow gaming in the declining resort of Atlantic City.
Mr. Sterns worked closely with the New Jersey legislature and the office of Gov. Brendan T. Byrne to shape the New Jersey Casino Control Act. Resorts, which had purchased the old Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel, was the first casino to be licensed in New Jersey and opened its doors on May 26, 1978. Waiting lines of eager gamblers soon formed around the hotel, which held a monopoly for more than a year before Caesar’s Atlantic City opened further down the boardwalk.
Mr. Sterns and his Trenton law firm, Sterns & Weinroth, grew to be recognized throughout the nation, in Canada, and in Europe as leading practitioners in the gaming industry. Mr. Sterns also was the long-time legal counsel to the New Jersey Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association.
Mr. Sterns was raised in Montclair, N.J., and graduated from Northwestern University in 1956. He received a master’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs in 1958. While a student at Princeton, he was assigned as an intern to Gov. Robert B. Meyner’s 1957 campaign for re-election against magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes. He soon found favor among the Meyner advisers and, on graduating from Princeton, was offered a position as executive assistant to Salvatore A. Bontempo, the state’s Commissioner of Conservation and Economic Development. In 1960, Mr. Sterns handled assignments with the campaigns of John F. Kennedy for President and Thorn Lord for U.S. Senate.
With Kennedy’s victory — Lord lost to Clifford P. Case — Mr. Sterns accompanied Mr. Bontempo to Washington, where he had been named head of the consular section of the State Department. Mr. Sterns served as assistant to the director of the Alliance for Progress and executive assistant to the chairman of the Import Export Bank of the United States in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.
Returning to Trenton in 1965 to assist with the re-election campaign of New Jersey Gov. Richard J. Hughes, Mr. Sterns thereafter was appointed deputy commissioner of the newly formed Department of Community Affairs, where he also served as acting commissioner.
Mr. Sterns earned his law degree in 1967, commuting to classes at New York University. He served as chief legal counsel to Governor Hughes in 1968 and 1969, and enjoyed a close personal relationship with the former governor and later Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who joined Mr. Sterns’ Trenton law firm when he retired.
Mr. Sterns, a former president of the International Association of Gaming Attorneys, was an elected member of the American Law Institute, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and a member of the Lawyers Advisory Committee of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey.
Mr. Sterns enjoyed music, particularly classical, opera, and guitar music, and his time on the tennis court. He loved Martha’s Vineyard, where he began summering in 1964, and eventually settled on Hines Point, Vineyard Haven in 1967. Mr. Sterns served on the executive committee and board of governors of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club.
Mr. Sterns was fond of horses and horse racing. A prodigious reader, Mr. Sterns read widely in current fiction, biography, and history, juggling multiple books simultaneously. With a mild and relaxed manner, he easily connected with people in all walks of life and will be remembered by his many enduring friendships.
Mr. Sterns was buried on Wednesday, February 23, on Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. Sterns is survived by his loving wife of 48 years, Joanne Glickman Sterns; his daughters and sons-in-law Rachel Becker (Brett) of Los Angeles and Leslie Johnson (Eric) of West Tisbury, a son David of Los Angeles, and his five grandchildren, to whom he was passionately devoted — Justin, Julia, Sydney, Jackson, and Phoebe.
In lieu of flowers, the Sterns Family has requested that memorial contributions may be made in memory of Joel H. Sterns to a charity of donor’s choice. A memorial service is to be scheduled in Trenton, New Jersey in the near future.