In her nearly 50 years as a Las Vegas resident, Jeri Packe unconditionally adored her city, which she saw evolve from a chic gambling destination to the modern entertainment mecca it’s become. She embraced the change and was instrumental in it.
The trained dancer who moved here in the early 1970s left her mark as a showgirl in old Las Vegas showrooms during the Rat Pack era and became a successful entrepreneur and coveted designer, whose work could be seen in hotels, businesses and residences around the valley.
On Nov. 19, Packe, the tenacious mother, performer, interior designer and beloved socialite, died from natural causes. She was 72.
“She came here with really not much but a dream and she made her own roots,” said Ashton Packe, her son, who is a sergeant with Metro Police.
His mother embodied the Las Vegas story and spirit, Packe said. “You come here to start new; you come here to start fresh, and this city will give you what you give to it. If you come here and you hustle and work, this city will reward you.”
Packe was raised in Arlington, Texas. Her father was a World War II veteran and her mother owned a makeup company.
She studied design at the University of Oklahoma. Her childhood hobby of dancing turned into a profession, and when she saw the opportunity, it turned into a career in Northern Nevada where she performed at showrooms.
From there, she headed to Las Vegas where she performed at the Tropicana, Flamingo and various other venues.
This was an era in which shows were more musically driven, and perhaps more personable, as opposed to modern shows, which her son described as being more digitally stimulating and athletic. After the Vietnam War, her brother, who also was a dancer, joined her in Las Vegas.
And it’s here where she met Tony Packe, a British casino executive, who survived after his house was decimated during WWII and whose career brought him the gambling capital. It was love at first sight, their son said.
Performers are similar to professional athletes in that they share a limited career window, so Jeri Packe — thinking about her son and daughter — adapted, starting her own interior design business, Pavilion Design Group.
In a time when men ruled the industry, she had to work harder to prove herself and stand out, Ashton Packe said. And she did, obtaining contracts and designing portions of various old Vegas hotels, such as the Mint, which later became Binion’s; Hotel San Remo, which is now Hooters, and Alexis Park Resort.
She tasted success and her work space grew from a one-room office to a spacious two-floor area. Her lone employee was later joined by many more. But as the larger hotel corporations took over Las Vegas, bringing their own design teams, Jeri Packe had to again adapt her business model, focusing on designing homes and off-Strip businesses.
The business continued to flourish until her recent retirement, which came after the 2008 market crash hit Las Vegas. A lot of homeowners could simply not afford extra expenses, such as design.
It was unfortunate, Ashton Packe said. His mother had an “incredible talent” and great work ethic.
He remembers her sitting at a drafting-board table and taking out a variety of pencils and sketching images that went straight from her mind to her hand.
She would make her clients abandon their spaces for several days. “You can’t be here; you have to leave,” Packe recalls her modus operandi. And they would return to be “blown away” by the re-dos.
That effect was perhaps most obvious in her own house, where her son acquired a lot of his cherished memories.
Photos in an issue of Las Vegas Life magazine showcased her evenly lighted study, adorned with carefully arranged paintings. “The study best reflects my personal style because of the eclectic nature in the European styling,” she told the writer. “This could be a setting in New York, it could be in Paris, it could be anywhere. I like an international flavor.”
She liked classical music, art and it wasn’t about the money, but about the “finer things” in life, Ashton Packe said. Her mind was a Vegas history encyclopedia, and he could always call her for a quick lesson of their city.
Jeri Packe also was kind and helped old friends bounce back, always opening the door to her house for them.
Ashton Packe remembers a hot summer Las Vegas day. They’d just had dinner and were driving home when his mother stopped at a red light and saw a homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of cans and carrying two large bags of aluminum cans.
He’s taking those cans to recycle and the money he made could determine if he ate that night, Ashton Packe said. His mother had noticed that the man had a motivational pep to his walk, so she pulled over and handed him a $100 bill. “You’re working so hard,” Packe remembers his mother saying.
Jeri Packe’s memorial service, which is open to the public, is at 1 p.m. today at Palm Mortuary, 1325 N. Main St.
Jeri Packe was preceded in death by Las Vegas casino executive Tony Packe and her mother, Sue Tucker. She is survived by Ashton Packe; her daughter, Samantha Packe; her brother, Bill Tucker, and her grandchildren: Travis Simmons, Abigail Packe, Aiden Packe and Sophia Packe.