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Phil Earl

Phil Earl

As you know, for many years, this feature was written by Frank Wright, who was a curator for the Nevada State Museum. If there was an equivalent of Frank in northern Nevada, as the go-to guy for history, it was Phil Earl. We’re sad to report that Phil died early this year just before his eighty-second birthday, and we would like to tell you more about him.

Phillip Irving Earl was born in Cedar City, Utah, but was a Nevadan through and through. His father Irving Bradshaw Earl worked for the Works Progress Administration on the dam project. Phil grew up in Boulder City. He went on to the University of Nevada in Reno, and eventually got a master’s degree there. In those days, the history department included Russell Elliott, the dean of Nevada historians, himself a native of McGill, and my old history professor.

For 26 years, Phil was curator of history at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno. His job was to keep track of the society’s collections and his goal was to expand knowledge of Nevada’s history. He achieved what he set out to do. His main job there was to enhance the archives, and he worked to obtain more collections that researchers could use. He was a scholar, publishing articles in numerous historical journals, especially the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, where anyone who wants to know about Nevada history turns for information. He helped put together nominations for the National Register of Historic Places, which increased public awareness of the need for preservation. He was interviewed in numerous documentaries and for countless television news reports and newspaper and magazine articles. He worked on environmental assessments of historic buildings and sites for the same purpose. He wrote up the material for a lot of historical markers that you can stop and look at as you drive around Nevada. He and his wife Jean became involved in an effort to preserve the images that Basque sheepherders carved onto aspen trees. He taught Nevada history, and he spoke just about anywhere at least two people wanted to hear someone knowledgeable and entertaining talk about this state.

He became best known around the state as a history columnist. For two decades, he wrote a weekly feature, “This Was Nevada,” which was distributed to newspapers throughout Nevada. It appeared in the big city dailies, but also in the small-town weeklies that dot the state. The columns have been collected in two books called This Was Nevada. If you love Nevada’s history, they’re on your bookshelf, or they should be. He wrote about everything in Nevada from women’s suffrage to volunteers in the Spanish-American War, from ghosts to divorce. Even after he retired, he kept researching, writing, and speaking on Nevada.

Many of you are familiar with the name Guy Louis Rocha. He was the longtime state archivist. He and Phil weren’t exactly a tag team. But if you needed to know something about Nevada history, especially up north, and didn’t talk to one or both of them, you didn’t actually find out what you needed to know. A wise man said that every time we lose someone like Phil Earl, we lose a library. Thankfully, he also left us a library of great work on Nevada’s history.