ATLANTIC CITY - Former Mayor Joseph Aaron Lazarow, 84, an "old-school gentleman" who held office when casino gambling was established here - and who had held an official world record for handshaking - died Thursday in St. Petersburg, Fla., after a long illness.
A lawyer, Lazarow was elected a city commissioner in 1972, when Atlantic City had that form of government. Four years later, he was chosen by his fellow commissioners to become mayor. He held that position from 1976 to 1982 - the early years of casino gambling - as the city struggled to restore its tarnished image as the queen of resorts.
"I think he really left his mark on Atlantic City. And part of his legacy is casino gambling," said former Atlantic County Executive Richard Squires, who was a county freeholder in 1975 when he met Lazarow.
"He saw that something needed to be done to help revitalize Atlantic City," Squires recalled, "and he went after it."
Despite his almost legendary low-key demeanor - his critics said he was sometimes so calm in office that he appeared to be ineffectual - Lazarow would launch massive publicity campaigns that appeared somewhat out of character. The normally quiet and unassuming mayor at times had a flair for the flamboyant.
On the Boardwalk in July 1977, just after casino gambling was approved in a referendum but before any casinos were built, Lazarow broke Theodore Roosevelt's 1901 Guinness Book of World Records mark by shaking 8,514 hands - one more than the president had.
News accounts claimed that Lazarow then one-upped himself that night by jumping into a moving motorcycle sidecar and shaking as many as 11,000 hands throughout the city. The Guinness record has since been broken, officially and unofficially.
In 1978, trying to turn around the rundown city, Lazarow traded places for a day with a popular New York television talk-show host, Joe Franklin.
But Lazarow had been all business when he was named chairman of the Committee to Rebuild Atlantic City. He was among those who pushed for the historic referendum that legalized casino gambling in November 1976.
The measure had failed once before, and the city continued to be heavily divided - mostly along racial lines - over whether gambling would revitalize the town or destroy black neighborhoods.
Lazarow was among those who saw casinos as a way for Atlantic City to have a new beginning.
In an interview in the Newark Star-Ledger on May 26, 1998, he was asked whether casino gambling had helped Atlantic City. He said he thought it had.
"In the old days, people left because there wasn't any work in the city. Now, along with the casinos, there are plenty of jobs and a market for other fields such as accounting, law and advertising. It took some time for things to happen and it will take more time, but we will have the best seashore resort in the world."
Former Mayor and State Sen.-elect Jim Whelan told the Associated Press than Lazarow was an anomaly in politics.
"He really was an old-fashioned gentleman, because he was so low-key," Whelan said. "Unlike a lot of the rest of us, who tend to make a lot of noise as both mayor and as an individual, he was always reserved and understated and soft-spoken."
Superior Court Judge Steven P. Perskie, who served in both houses of the state Legislature while Lazarow was in office, alluded to Atlantic City's checkered political history and singled out Lazarow as an exception.
"It's sad in a way that, when a public official passes away, we can't just take it for granted that they were an honest person of integrity," Perskie said. "But, given the politics and nature of Atlantic City, it should not be unspoken that, during his tenure as both commissioner and mayor, he served with the utmost personal and professional integrity."
Lazarow was born in Atlantic City in 1923, a son of Eva and Morris Lazarow, and lived there until 1995, when he retired after the death of his wife and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
He graduated from Atlantic City High School and briefly attended Rutgers University after winning a scholarship. His schooling was interrupted by World War II, when he enlisted in the Army and served as a private from 1942 to 1945. During his service, Lazarow worked as a French interpreter for the Army during the Battle of the Ardennes and the Rhineland Campaign, and received the American Theater Ribbon and the EAME Campaign Ribbon with two bronze service stars.
After returning from the war, he again attended Rutgers, and later obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from Temple University.
He returned to Atlantic City to practice law and marry Fredlyn Pogach of Philadelphia. They were married for 39 years, until her death in 1993.
Lazarow is survived by children Harriett Orol, Robin, Brian and Warren; a brother; a sister; and six grandchildren.
Funeral services will be at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Roth- Goldstein Memorial Chapel, 116 Pacific Ave. Donations may be made to the Menorah Manor Foundation, 255 59th St. N., St. Petersburg, Fla. 33710.