You are here

Ice Bucket Challenge Captured Your Interest?

Here's a touching story from our archives about beloved professor Hal Rothman's losing battle with ALS. It's worth a read even if you didn't know his prolific work.
People  |  Aug 19, 2014  |  By Diane Russell
The late UNLV history professor Hal Rothman in a 2006 file photo. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)
Editor's Note: 

The ALS Association's Ice Bucket Challenge campaign has been raising awareness of the disease this week. It reminded us of one of UNLV's most beloved professors, Hal Rothman, who died of the disease in 2007. As the disease took over his body, he gave this interview for the spring 2006 issue of UNLV Magazine. Even if you've never heard of him, it offers a touching commentary on a inspiring Rebel we're still proud of.

History professor Hal Rothman has always been willing to take on challenge after challenge. Long a prolific writer of books and journal articles as well as a gifted instructor, over the years he added radio host, newspaper columnist, and department chair to his bio with hardly a second thought.

But the latest entry was stunning. In December (2005) he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), most commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- the almost-always fatal illness that struck down the famed Yankee first baseman. Rothman spent spring semester researching, teaching, writing, and tending to his off-campus commitments while coming to terms with his ALS and what it will mean for his future.

He knows the rugged facts. The progressive neurodegenerative disease affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Rothman describes it this way: "Your body turns to Jell-O and your mind stays sharp." According to the ALS Association, patients typically die within two to five years of diagnosis, though 20 percent of patients live more than five. Rothman is determined to be like another noted scholar with the disease. Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking has lived with the disease for more than 40 years, all the while expanding the body of knowledge in physics.

? Discovering He Had ALS: I'd been in Europe with my family last summer and in the Middle East. I did all kinds of things. I had a great time watching the Tour de France, climbing the Eiffel Tower, hiking around Israel, swimming off the coast of Cyprus where I visited my good friend (UNLV anthropology professor) Alan Simmons at his dig.

I remember getting a twinge in my forearm at the airport in Paris on my way out. I had just bought too many bottles of duty-free booze, and I thought, "Well, obviously the bag is real heavy. No big deal."

Then I woke up back in the U.S. on the Fourth of July and my right hand didn't work right. My assumption was I had a pinched nerve in my neck. My friend who is a doctor examined me and then recommended I see a neurologist. I put it off because I figured it would just get better -- these things usually do.

About two weeks later my friend called and told me again to see a neurologist. The neurologist sent me to the Mayo Clinic. In November they saw me and were pretty sure it was ALS. The doctors there confirmed it in December.

? Before the Diagnosis: All I knew about the disease was just that Lou Gehrig died of it and that it was unusual. And that there was, and is, no cure.

? The Randomness: Some cases are linked to genetics, but mine isn't. Athletes are over-represented among people with ALS. I've been an athlete all my life. There are other cluster groups, too, including veterans of the first Gulf War. No one knows why this is.

? Stem Cell Research: It is so important. With everybody living longer, everybody is going to face neurological disease in their family whether it's Alzheimer's, ALS, MS, or one of the 200 or so others.

? Daily Changes: Already the range of motion in my right hand is limited, only leaving enough to operate a mouse. I expect I'll be teaching in a wheelchair next semester. There are all kinds of challenges like that, presumably in my future and probably soon. You end up without dignity very quickly. One concern is how I will communicate when I can't speak.

Every day is an adventure. But at the same time every day is a gift because you are still here.

? Emotions: A funny thing about the disease is it seems that once an emotion starts, you can't stop it. If I start to laugh, or if I start to cry, it seems like it doesn't end for half an hour. It's like I have no brakes for anything I feel.

? Luck: Truthfully, I got 47 perfect years. Everything broke my way. That's a hell of a lot more than most people get. The gods reached down and put ideas in my head. Even better, they let them come out my fingers -- and at a pretty good clip. Not everybody gets that.

? In the Classroom: On a certain level my favorite class was the survey -- you know, the 100-level introductory class for the "great unwashed." All the people are there for the requirement. The objective is to turn them on to the field. That is a lot harder challenge than teaching people who already have selected history as their major.

Most intellectually rewarding, of course, is the work with the graduate students. Being an undergraduate is about learning to answer other people's questions. Being a graduate student is about learning to ask your own. So you are involved with people who have a base knowledge and are trying to formulate questions that will lead them to meaningful answers. And that is pretty exciting stuff.

? Teaching vs. Research: There's no difference between teaching and research. And anybody who says there is is faking it on one side or the other. What we do is create and disseminate knowledge. It takes many forms, and my favorite has always been interaction in the classroom. I was never one of those guys for whom students had to repeat what I said to do well. My thing always was, "Agreeing with me and $3.11 gets you Starbucks. Disagreeing with me with a cogent argument earned you my respect." So it's about teaching people how to think -- not what to think. And history is a pretty good medium for that.

? His Column in the Las Vegas Sun: As long as I have some way to get the speech out, I'll be doing the column.

? His KUNV radio interview show, Our Metropolis, which is ceasing production: It's been a tremendous gig. Hopefully it's done some good in the universe. I hope that somebody's been listening and has learned something from all the ideas they have heard discussed. Some people are dead air, but some people really fill it up.

The most memorable guest was David Brenner, the comedian. He was a tremendous interview because he's basically a stand-up comedian and talking is his way of doing things. He was completely relaxed. I felt like he was interviewing me.

? Current Work: I'm finishing a history of fire management in the National Park Service (Blazing Heritage: Wildland Fire in the National Park System ) that will be published by Oxford University Press next year. I'm working on and hope to complete by the end of the year a new history of Nevada for college classroom use. The ones we have are fine in their way, but they have two enormous flaws from my point of view. They don't deal with the 20th century and they don't deal with Southern Nevada. What I've done is written one that gets us up to speed. I hope that people will use it in classes for a long time.

? Setting Goals: The National Park Service will celebrate its centennial in 2016. I want to be the one to write the book. I've been pretty good about setting the bar for myself and making it there. Hopefully, I'll make that one in 2016, too. [Rothman's book, Blazing Heritage was one of two works published posthumously.]

? Career Choices: I'd do exactly what I've done. I'm not the kind of person who looks back and says woulda, coulda, shoulda. I wouldn't trade a thing. I wouldn't change what I do or where I do it.

I was lucky to be here at the right time. A particular set of skills and interests I had melded with what was going on here at UNLV and in greater Las Vegas. When you think about it, what is more unlikely than a historian coming to Las Vegas? In that respect it was a strange kind of synergy.

? New Experiences: Here's something important to know: Because of the ALS I'm going to make some of the best friends of my life -- people I wouldn't meet otherwise.

? Facing Adversity: The truism in life is that adversity shows character. It does and it doesn't. The thing about adversity is you are faced with it. You've got to deal with it. In a situation like mine, you've got two choices: You can roll over and wait to die, or you can keep doing what you're doing.

In my mind, that doesn't take courage. That's a no-brainer. What else would I do? But I'm not brave. I don't have a choice about this.

The brave ones are the ones who chose to stick by me. My wife, my kids, close friends, my graduate students, and the others who bestow upon me the daily kindness of their attention and their help. They have a choice, and they have chosen to stay. They have my undying admiration.

I was always one of those people who was going to make the most out of every day -- and I still am. This may kill me, but it will never beat me.

Las Vegas According to Hal

Hal Rothman's gift for pithy quotes has made him a favorite commentator on all things Las Vegas. He's been sought out so frequently by national media -- The New York Times, Newsweek, and NBC News included -- that the Las Vegas Weekly dubbed him the "go-to guru for informed perspective on Las Vegas." A couple of our favorite Hal quotes:

? "We plane the rough edges off of reality and give it to you as you would have it. Las Vegas does not challenge you. Instead it affirms who you are, an 'I'm OK, you're OK' for the 21st century." (Las Vegas Sun column, March 26)

? "Las Vegas is a place where the past is truly prologue ... Preserving what we were yesterday is not as important as divining what we will be tomorrow." (Boston Globe, Oct. 2, 2003)

? "There's no doubt that our traditions and our future are somehow at odds. We're going to have to renegotiate the boundaries." (Associated Press, Jan. 6, 2003)

Selected Honors Earned

Named: UNLV's 14th distinguished professor (2006)

Received: UNLV President's Medal (2006), Aldo Leopold Award from the department of environmental studies (2006), Livable Communities Award from the Nevada chapter of the American Institute of Architects (2006), Distinguished Service Award from the American Society for Environmental History (2006), and Harry Reid Silver State Research Award (2004)

Inducted: Nevada Writers Hall of Fame (2004)

Selected Books by Hal Rothman

  • Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century
  • LBJ's TEXAS White House: Our Heart's Home
  • Devil's Bargain: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West
  • The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the U.S. Since 1945
  • On Rims and Ridges: The Los Alamos Area Since 1880