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Establishing the Campus

The drive to form a campus started with vision — but what it needed was money.

UNLV History  |  Oct 18, 2017  |  By Jason Scavone
Illustration of Nevada Southern Telethon

(Illustration by Tony Canepa)

Editor's Note: 

This story is part of a series on the moments that shaped UNLV on the way to its 60th year.

A gift from Estelle and Howard Wilbourn in 1955 netted Nevada Southern the first 60 acres of its campus along Maryland Parkway, but there was a catch. The nascent school had to come up with an additional $35,000 (about $320,000 today) for an adjoining 20 acres if it was going to pocket the 60. 

The state approved $200,000 to help fund development of the campus with the stipulation that Las Vegans themselves come up with the funds for the land, and not Nevada taxpayers at large. And they had a deadline. If Las Vegas couldn’t do it by June 1956 that $200,000 wouldn’t be released. 

No pressure. 

Local business and community leaders formed the Nevada Southern Campus Fund to raise that money and more. The group aimed to raise $135,000 — enough to cover the land purchase, with plenty left over for supplies, equipment, landscaping and other necessities. 

The fundraising activities centered on the Porchlight Drive. Starting at 5:30 p.m. May 24, KLAS and KLRJ jointly broadcast an hour-long telethon leaning into Las Vegas’ greatest natural resource: Strip resort performers.

Barney Rawlings, a former World War II bomber pilot turned Thunderbird showroom singer and host (and eventual head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority) served as master of ceremonies. Actor Jeff Chandler (Broken Arrow, Return to Peyton Place) joined in, as did the comedy team Davis & Reese, musical comedy act Martha Davis and Spouse (yep, that’s what they were called), the Billy Williams Quartet, singer David Swain, and others. 

At 7 p.m., current university students, high school juniors and seniors, and Nevada Southern supporters, armed with identification badges and receipt books, went door-to-door hoping to collect donations from 10,000 people. The campaign, which stretched until 10 p.m., asked willing donors to leave their porch lights on. 

They managed to collect $13,000 in pledges. Early champions of Nevada Southern like Archie C. Grant and Spencer Butterfield dug into the business community to try to close the gap. James Dickinson, the school’s first administrator and instructor, tried an all-night radio broadcast to drum up support. Through pressure, force of will, and relentless pursuit of local business leaders, the Campus Fund scratched together $50,000. 

That $50,000 paid for the 20 acres of land, and more importantly, it secured the $200,000 in state funding. The extra money for books and supplies would have to wait. There was enough money to spark the powder and start construction of campus’s first building, Maude Frazier Hall. But the north-south divide that caused the $35,000 requirement in the first place would foreshadow the budget fights to come.