Those of us who like to talk about Las Vegas have lost a true friend. Hal Rothman, a brilliant environmental historian who became a real pioneer of the academic study of Las Vegas, passed away on Sunday. Here’s a story from the LVRJ:
Hal Rothman, the oft-quoted expert on all things Las Vegas, died Sunday after a yearlong battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 48.
Rothman, who hosted a radio show, wrote a column in the Las Vegas Sun and authored several books, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, in December 2005.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas hired Rothman as a history professor in 1992, when the Strip was leading the valley headlong into a boom that was to last into the next decade. It provided Rothman with his topic of choice: “Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century,” as his 2002 book was titled.
Rothman’s sharp mind and quick wit made him the media’s choice for intelligent perspective on the city. He was quoted in or appeared on almost every national news outlet in the country, including The New York Times, Newsweek magazine, ABC World News Tonight, The Wall Street Journal, the CBS Evening News, CNN and National Public Radio.
“I’m on television more than anybody who isn’t a member of the Screen Actors Guild,” Rothman joked to the Review-Journal in 2003.
UNLV history professor Andy Kirk said his former colleague “embraced the role of spokesman for Vegas like few people have. He was always willing to express his thoughts on Vegas … and found a national audience.”
“He had just an amazing passion and love for history that he loved sharing with the public,” Kirk said.
Rothman began as an assistant professor of history at UNLV and served as the department’s chairman from 2002 to 2005. Former UNLV President Carol Harter named him the university’s 14th distinguished professor in May.
“He’s an irreplaceable type of person,” Harter said. “He’s a brilliant man who cared deeply about his family and university. He will be sorely, sorely missed.”
Though he became known worldwide as the preeminent historian of modern Las Vegas, his areas of expertise also included environmental history and the history of the American West.
I was lucky enough to benefit from some of Hal’s sound advice and intellectual discussion.
My column in next week’s Business Press will be about him. Here is an excerpt:
Hal’s greatest gift was his ability to make us think twice about our assumptions. Devil’s Bargains, which was published in 1998, was at once an academic tour de force and an incredibly readable book about tourism. It’s also got some of the greatest insights about Las Vegas committed to paper yet.
The book takes in a wide sweep of modern Western tourism, ranging from the Grand Canyon to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Only two of its thirteen are explicitly about Las Vegas. But it is a book that every Las Vegan should read, because it brilliantly says what all of us have long suspected: that tourism, for all of its benefits, is a double-edged sword.
Devil’s Bargains is the centerpiece of an intellectual legacy written across fifteen books and countless journal articles, opinion pieces, and essays. An established historian before moving to Las Vegas, he fittingly pushed himself into new areas along with his adopted hometown, becoming a rare thing—a public intellectual capable of swapping one-liners with news anchors or debating postmodernity with fellow professors.
Up to the end, Hal kept his knack for surprising us. We in Las Vegas were lucky to have him, and everyone who tries to understand what makes the “Neon Metropolis” tick will be in debt to him for a long time to come.
I’m in debt to Hal for more than that–he was a big help in getting my first book published, was always supportive of my work, and was responsible for my getting the Business Press gig. After he left the LVBP for the Sun’s opinion page, I got half of his old slot.
If hearing this news motivates you to do something, I’d suggest a donation to the ALS Society of Nevada in his name.
But if you want to do something for yourself, I recommend getting a copy of Devil’s Bargains and reading it cover to cover. It will change the way you think about tourist towns, and give you a rare perspective on Las Vegas.