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Do Something: Remembering Dr. Felicia Florine Campbell

Felicia Campbell in her UNLV office. "If I remember correctly," says photographer Aaron Mayes, "she told me she 'tidied up a bit' before I got there for the portrait session."
Aaron Mayes via UNLV Special Collections and Archives
Felicia Campbell in her UNLV office. "If I remember correctly," says photographer Aaron Mayes, "she told me she 'tidied up a bit' before I got there for the portrait session."

“Do something.”

Strangest words I ever heard from a professor regarding an assignment, but that was exactly what Dr. Felicia Campbell, who passed away July 27 from Covid-19 complications, announced as the details of a class project. “Just do … something,” she’d reiterate when questioned by a student who didn’t quite understand the freedom of the directive. “It doesn’t matter what you do, you just have to do something.”

I met Dr. Campbell when I was looking for an advisor during my MFA degree at UNLV, where she had the distinction of being the longest-serving faculty member. She’d been in the English department since 1962, back when there “were, like, five buildings … there was nothing between the campus and Sahara Avenue.” Once I did finally meet her, I was amazed it had taken us this long to intersect. It turned out we shared a love for genre literature and would spend hours in her office discussing classic science fiction or pulp mysteries, both topics in which she not only taught classes, but also published her own fiction. I was privileged to receive her guidance and then share a couple of tables of contents with her in genre-based anthologies. I took every class she offered, some more than once, just for the opportunities she provided to learn new perspectives which weren’t from the canon.

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But that “do something,” that’s what got me. That was Dr. Campbell summed up in a two-word cypher. This was a woman who, after getting her BA in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, decided to join the Marines, just to show she could do it. She was part of the first class of women officer candidates and, once she proved she could hack it, decided it wasn’t something she wanted to do after all and resigned her commission, heading back to academia. 

Even coming to UNLV was part of that freewheeling attitude. Back in 1962, with an MS and all the coursework for her PhD completed, she applied to both UNLV … and a college in Nigeria. Thankfully, UNLV worked out first. A decade or so later, she was involved in a discrimination lawsuit against the university. When it was settled, she took the money and … did something. At 52, she and some friends trekked to the base camp at K2, second highest mountain in the world. There were pictures from that trip hanging on the walls of her office, and she would talk about it often. 

As my own academic career at UNLV continued, Dr. Campbell became one of my MFA thesis advisors, and when I graduated and became a teacher myself, she would let her years of experience guide me, allowing me to sit in her office and bitch and then gently showing me the right way to get through it. 

And I did. I became a professor in my own right, and every day when I walk into that classroom, I think of her and her influence. 

And I do something.

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