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Rebels From the Beginning

From visionary legislators to controversial coaches, the book covers the personalities who shaped UNLV.
UNLV History  |  Jan 7, 2008  |  By Barbara Cloud

Professor Eugene Moehring

UNLV is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and who better to chronicle those years than a historian who has personally witnessed more than half of them. Professor Eugene Moehring, chair of the history department, was hired 31 years ago to replace historian John Wright, one of the university's founding faculty and the man for whom Wright Hall is named.

Starting with materials collected by Robert Davenport, retired UNLV history professor, Moehring spent another two and a half years researching and writing the university's history, which was published this summer by the University of Nevada Press. Among the "old timers" Moehring interviewed to complete the book was Davenport himself.
"I worked with Bob for nearly 20 years," Moehring says. "He had begun the book in the 1990s and had completed about 50 typed pages up to 1968. Bob had interviewed all of the UNLV presidents up to [Robert] Maxson and also spoke with William Carlson's widow, and we spent several hours reminiscing about the 1960s and 1970s on this campus."

In the book's nearly 400 pages, Moehring brings to life the personalities who helped establish the young university; discusses the decisions and controversies that influenced its location, goals, programs, and personnel; examines the relationship between UNLV and the Las Vegas community; and recounts the impact students have had on the direction of the institution.

The university's story actually begins in 1951 when the University of Nevada, Reno began offering extension classes. Twelve students signed up to attend classes held at Las Vegas High School. Four years later, students and supporters went door-to-door for donations to purchase land for a permanent campus. Finally, in September 1957, students traveled to the Maryland Parkway campus to take their classes.

Moehring says he did not expect to find the high level of student involvement in the early years. "They (students) were instrumental in convincing regents to fund a campus and really battled the regents and northern administrators to get needed buildings for this campus," he says.

A chapter on athletics addresses the issues that led to the departures of then-President Maxson and basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. "I don't take sides," Moehring says about this chapter. "I articulate what each man was fighting for." Both Maxson and former athletics director Brad Rothermel read the chapter before the book went to press.
A number of chapters address the leaders who have shaped UNLV during its half century of providing higher education in Southern Nevada. For example, William Carlson, for whom the building that houses the College of Education is named, served as the university's first chief executive. Known as the dean of the Southern Nevada Regional Division of the University of Nevada, Carlson persuaded the Board of Regents to allow the southern campus to offer its own degrees in 1964 as a way of celebrating the state's centennial.

Moehring says leadership has been important to the university's development. "Every leader at some point has done something to move us up," he says. "We have not had a bad leader."

Aside from interviews, Moehring's sources included the records of the Nevada Southern Land Foundation in special collections at UNLV's Lied Library. The foundation was started by Moyer in 1967 and consisted of a group of bankers and other businessmen who bought the land for the existing campus.

"From the files, it is clearly evident that President Roman Zorn (1969-1973), who has long been regarded as a somewhat obscure figure, was really quite involved with the land assembly process when the (Latter-Day Saints) Institute and the Newman Club were moved from their old locations on Harmon west of the library to their present site on Brussels Road," Moehring says. "Zorn also worked to have the future Swenson Street veer much farther west until it almost touches Paradise Road at Harmon, so airport traffic would not cut through campus."

Aside from quality leadership, if there is a theme in the UNLV history, Moehring says it is the university's need to keep up with the growth from 12 students to more than 28,000 without a corresponding increase in tax support.

While he has worked on the book, Moehring has also chaired the department of history. And research on the UNLV story overlapped with publication of Moehring's Las Vegas: A Centennial History, co-authored with Michael Green of the College of Southern Nevada. The centennial history was Moehring's second book about Las Vegas. In 1989, he published Resort City in the Sunbelt: Las Vegas, 1930-2000, a work that grew out of his fascination with the development of cities in the Southwest. Between the two Las Vegas books, he turned his attention to urbanization, and in 2004 the University of Nevada Press published his Urbanism and Empire in the Far West, 1840-1890, a study that furthered his reputation as a specialist in the field of urban history.