Conway Downing Jr. '64
The roll of the dice
By Tana Sherman
When Conway “Doc” Downing Jr. ’64 attended the University of Virginia Law School, he thought he was headed for a career on Wall Street. But his entrepreneurial flair took over, and he has built a career providing services for the gaming industry—servicing lottery machines, lobbying for a gaming trade association and currently exploring Internet gaming.
“As an African-American businessman trying to get ahead in the gaming industry, I enjoy the challenge and new opportunities on the horizon,” he says. “Not long ago gaming was considered ‘mobbed up,’ and those involved in this industry could not access the capital markets and the Wall Street investment banking community.”
Even by deciding to come to Andover, Downing showed his willingness to take on challenges. Growing up in Newport News, Va., he attended segregated black schools. In a South that was still grappling with integration, Downing’s father, a dentist and entrepreneur himself, feared Newport News would follow the lead of Norfolk, where the white high schools, rather than integrate, were closed.
So Downing considered boarding school in New England. When he showed up at the SSAT test site—a white elementary school in Virginia—he was told it would be a violation of state law for him to sit with white students, and he was asked to move to the basement. His father angrily protested, and young Conway took the SSAT with the others.
According to Downing, when he arrived on campus in 1960, he was the only black student in the junior class. “Although I always felt extremely blessed, privileged and honored to have had the opportunity to attend Andover, I have always realized many of my childhood friends and others were not so lucky—whether due to segregation, their ethnicity, socioeconomic status or simply the roll of the dice,” he says.
A varsity athlete in both track and basketball, he also was a trumpet player in the band and jazz club, a disc jockey and a firefighter. “When a smoldering fire threatened the bird sanctuary, the school sent teams of three boys and one faculty member with fire extinguishers on our backs to try to put out the fire,” Downing explains.
His basketball teammates included George W. Bush ’64 and Clay Johnson III ’64, currently White House director of personnel. “It was our first winning season, and we beat Exeter twice that year,” he says.
After graduating from Harvard, Downing enrolled in law school, but dropped out after two months to start a beer distributorship with a Harvard classmate. That first entrepreneurial experience was short-lived, and Downing returned to law school the next fall and subsequently earned a J.D. degree.
For the past 14 years, he has been involved in providing a variety of supplies, products and services to the gaming industry. His first venture was the subcontract for lottery terminal maintenance for the Virginia state lottery. His company, Ascendx, Inc., eventually diversified into the casino side of the industry by establishing an office in Atlantic City, where it has a gaming license and has done business with every casino.
Describing himself as “a serial entrepreneur in the gaming industry, trying to attract new opportunities,” Downing currently is senior adviser for Mattox Woolfolk, LLC, a Washington government relations firm that has represented the trade association for the interactive gaming industry. “This industry involves some very contentious, thorny and complicated issues that raise perplexing questions about global trade, mores, individual rights, privacy and criminality,” he says.
It’s currently illegal in the United States to operate a gaming site on the Internet, but Downing predicts that will change. “I am concentrating on legal, international jurisdictions that have taken a more proactive and responsible regulatory approach,” he says.
Interested in inner-city education, Downing is on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Newport News. He and his wife, Marialice Williams, live in Washington, D.C.