When Felicia Campbell died in July of Covid-19, she was the senior faculty member at UNLV. That was important, to us and to her. But there’s so much more to her story.
Let’s start with her birth in Wisconsin in 1931. She went on to college and graduate school, which wasn’t the easiest thing for women to do then (and it still isn’t easy). Since the Marines started allowing women, she joined to prove she could make it. She completed the training and quit after six months. She had made her point and was unhappy with her unit.
In 1962, she could choose between two possible jobs, one in Nigeria, one at a little school called Nevada Southern University. Thankfully, she went for Nevada Southern. She arrived late one night. The next morning, she came out of her new apartment and thought she saw a gas station across the street. That was Frazier Hall, the school’s first building. At the time, the rest of the campus was Grant Hall, the science building, and the gym, which is now the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art. They were working on the library.
She taught English. Yes, the basics, and the standard stuff. But she was always interested in new things, and brought them to the classroom. She was one of the first to teach a course on science fiction. She taught classes on chaos theory and on Asian literature, and was key to starting the school’s Asian Studies program.
She had to write a dissertation, and she decided to examine gambling. She ended up getting national attention by concluding that it was just another form of risk-taking and leisure, and just fine if done in moderation. That was big news to a lot of people.
She also took risks in her own right. She sued the university twice for discrimination, and won settlements both times. The first time, she said she wanted an adventure afterward. She took some of the money and went for a two-month, 300-mile hike. To the base of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, on Pakistan’s northwestern frontier.
She also continued to plow territory that was little studied or ignored. There’s a historian who said that if you want to understand the Great Depression, it’s important to know about Franklin Roosevelt, but it’s just as important to know about Mickey Mouse. She knew that and ended up starting the Far West Popular and American Culture Association. She put on nearly thirty conferences in Las Vegas, encouraging people here, there, and everywhere to share their research, pursue their interests, and take seriously some things they might not have taken all that seriously before. A conference might include a study of Bob Marley’s impact and western images in Bugs Bunny cartoons.
She wrote her own stories, fiction and non-fiction. She also spent many years on this station as a book reviewer. Of course, her choices were totally eclectic, just like her. When she died, The New York Times and the PBS Newshour profiled her. One included her daughter Tracy Tuttle’s story of her mother teaching her to say when she was a child, “I am my own little person.” Felicia Campbell was her own person, and Nevada is better for having had her and remaining, always, her own person.
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