You are here

It All Adds Up

UNLV’s first mathematics professor reminisces about how he ended up in Las Vegas and helped build the university from the ground up.

UNLV History  |  Mar 18, 2015  |  By Shane Bevell

Carolyn and Malcolm Graham

Editor's Note: 

This is the first in an occasional Namesakes series about the people who are memorialized around our campus. In this story, the namesakes of the endowed Malcolm and Carolyn L. Graham Scholarship for science students reflect on their role in building UNLV and inspiring Southern Nevada mathematics students. More information about scholarship donations can be found on the UNLV Foundation website.


In 1956, Malcolm "Mac" Graham was making $5,000 a year as associate professor of mathematics at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. He and his wife, Carolyn, only lived there for a year but had three reasons for wanting to leave: hurricanes, humidity, and ambition.

Malcolm grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and Carolyn in the mountains of Virginia; the Southern climate just felt oppressive. But when one of Mac's colleagues landed a $6,000 job offer, Mac knew he could strive for more himself.

"I have never seen Mac so motivated in my life," says Carolyn, who met her husband at Longwood College, where he was her math professor. "He was set to get a $100 raise the following year, but Mac thought he could make more elsewhere. So he made a long-distance phone call -- which was a big deal at the time -- to Columbia University, where he received his doctoral degree, and updated his resume by mail."

Mac received two notices of jobs that interested him. One was at Eastern Michigan University and the other was at the University of Nevada in Reno. An interview was arranged and Mac drove the family's only car to the closest airport and flew to Reno, leaving a very pregnant wife and a toddler at home for five days. It was the first time he had ever been on a commercial airplane. He interviewed with the math department chair as well as with William Woods, the university's vice president.

Woods told Mac about the university's new branch in Las Vegas, and suggested that his youth (age 32) would make for a good fit. The two made the desolate 450-mile drive from Reno to Las Vegas. Mac remembers that Sahara Avenue was called San Francisco Avenue and it was dirt, as was Maryland Parkway. There weren't even buildings for the branch campus to hold classes.

Undeterred, Mac excitedly called Carolyn, telling her he was going to accept a job in Las Vegas. She asked about the Eastern Michigan interview but Mac said that Michigan is too cold. The best part is that he was offered $6,000, the amount he desired.

From the Ground Up

Mac was one of 12 faculty members, and the only math faculty member, who started the 1956-57 school year at what was then called the Southern Regional Division of the University of Nevada, Reno. With no dedicated facilities, faculty taught wherever there was space -- at Las Vegas High School and in Sunday school rooms of the Baptist Church across the street.

"We subdivided some of the rooms for teaching and had our offices wherever we could fit a desk," Mac said. "We could even hear the other professors teaching. I learned more about footnotes that year because I could hear an English professor's lecture."

The school occupied the first campus building, later named Maude Frazier Hall, in 1957 and held its first commencement in 1964 with 29 graduates. In 1965, it became Nevada Southern University with its own curriculum, and in 1969 the name was changed to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"It was a time of enthusiasm and optimism. It was the first time Las Vegas had an institution of higher learning," Mac said. "Everyone knew each other, and we felt like pioneers, going where no man had gone before.

"Nevada Southern University was the darling of everyone in town," he said. "The town was very welcoming and the campus culture was one of camaraderie. It was a thrilling time for an educator to build something from the ground up."

Finding a Niche

As more math professors came on board, Mac gravitated toward teaching mathematics to those majoring in education. Las Vegas was growing and needed teachers, but the only educators were coming from Reno and from out of state. Mac soon found the textbooks available in that field lacking, so he began writing his first textbook in 1967. Colleagues thought it might not ever get published since it was coming out of a newly formed university.

He wrote the first three chapters and mailed them to three large publishing companies. All three offered him a contract but he chose Harcourt Brace because the contract offered 18 percent royalties if the book sold more than 10,000 copies rather than the straight 15 percent from the other companies. The first edition of Modern Elementary Mathematics was published in 1970. The byline read University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The book was for college professors who were teaching students to teach mathematics in elementary or junior high school. There were four editions of the book, and in time it sold several hundred thousand copies. The last revision was in 1984. Mac retired in 1985 but continued to receive royalties for the book well into the 1990s. "Publishing that textbook was one of the highlights of my professional career," he said

At the time of his retirement, Mac was the longest tenured professor ever at UNLV (29 years). During his last few years, he served as grand marshal at commencement ceremonies. He was the university's third grand marshal, which at the time was based on seniority, behind campus pioneers William Carlson and John Wright.

Carolyn said Mac really found his niche as a college professor. He had good relationships with the students and was good at advising them as young adults. "It was a very good life, and Mac really loved teaching and writing mathematics. Both of us are very happy that we were involved in education," said Carolyn, who taught mathematics in the Clark County School District for 28 years.