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November 24, 2014

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Keeping his work alive

When UNLV history professor Hal Rothman died at age 48, he had five research projects in the works. Now his former students and others are finishing them.

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Sam Morris

Materials on Yosemite National Park surround Lincoln Bramwell in his first office at UNLV, which had been the office of his mentor, history professor Hal Rothman, who died last year. Bramwell, who has since moved to another office, is completing a project on Yosemite’s administration that Rothman started.

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UNLV history professor Hal Rothman was known for his energy and directness.

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  • UNLV doctoral student Aaron McArthur shares how he felt when the late professor Hal Rothman asked him to take on a research project on St. Thomas, an old Mormon town in Nevada.
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  • UNLV doctoral student Mike Childers talks about why it's important that he and other students are helping to finish Rothman's outstanding research projects.
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  • Childers talks about Rothman.
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  • Lincoln Bramwell, director of a research project on Yosemite National Park that Rothman was leading before he died, talks about Rothman's old work habits.
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  • Bramwell, whom Rothman mentored when Bramwell was a student, talks about finishing his old mentor's project.
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  • Bramwell talks about the kind of person Rothman was.
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  • Bramwell talks about meeting Rothman several years ago.
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The last time Mike Childers talked to him, Hal Rothman was a month away from death.

Wheelchair-bound, Rothman needed a computer to speak for him. Lou Gehrig’s disease had robbed him of his voice and his ability to walk.

But illness couldn’t take away the ego or the ardor of the man whom colleagues called a force of nature.

“The legend still lives,” Rothman told Childers during their final conversation.

The UNLV professor was referring to the fact that even after death, books would still be published in his name.

With Childers’ and other students’ help, Rothman is still producing from the grave.

In life, Rothman was a husband, a father of two, an environmental historian, a scholar, a teacher, a newspaper columnist, an expert on Las Vegas and myriad other topics.

And somehow, in this whirlwind existence, Rothman found time to mentor and befriend a large flock of graduate students.

In death, he gave them one last gift: the chance to advance their young careers by helping wrap up five research projects he left behind when he died in February 2007 at age 48 — historical studies of Yosemite National Park, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Pipe Springs National Monument, the town of St. Thomas, Nev., and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. All are set to be completed by 2010.

“It has meant a lot to his students to be able to play a role in finishing the work of their mentor,” said Andy Kirk, a fellow professor in the history department. “They’ve said this repeatedly. It was clear from the beginning that they were stepping up for someone that they thought a lot of, to do work that he thought was really important.”

•••

On a trip to the National Archives in College Park, Md., in 2002, Rothman shared a hotel room with Lincoln Bramwell, then a University of New Mexico doctoral student whom the professor had hired to help on a book.

“He, every morning, would get up at 4 and start writing and politely wait ’til 6 to turn on the light, when I would wake up,” Bramwell recalls, laughing.

After spending the day researching, the two would go for a run before dinner. Rothman would work until midnight before sleeping and rising at 4 a.m. again the next day.

“That wasn’t an incredible show for him,” Bramwell said. “That was a normal workweek. And that’s when I realized, ‘Uh oh, there’s no keeping up with this guy.’ ”

Bramwell doesn’t try to replicate Rothman’s frenetic pace, but in some ways, the student is stepping into his mentor’s place.

UNLV hired Bramwell last summer to complete Rothman’s most expensive outstanding project, a 400- to 500-page history of Yosemite National Park that the National Park Service had commissioned for more than $200,000.

Finishing the book was a plum gig, especially for a newly minted Ph.D.

So he packed up a Penske truck and drove with his wife and infant son to Nevada from Albuquerque in August 2007. When he arrived at UNLV, the department placed him in Rothman’s old office.

“This was a big opportunity for me, but at the same time, this is Hal’s old office. You can imagine how bittersweet that would be. This is not the way you want to get your big break,” Bramwell said in May, surveying the room where his professor used to work.

On one bookshelf, Bramwell kept a snapshot of himself and Rothman at a night baseball game in San Francisco, one of several sporting events at which the pair discussed Bramwell’s doctoral dissertation.

In his first days in Las Vegas, Bramwell sifted through mountains of research Rothman and students had collected on Yosemite: books, 11 boxes of files, 6 gigabytes of word documents.

Like Childers, a primary researcher on the Yosemite project, Bramwell thought his job mattered because he was finishing the work of a man who had taught him so much.

“A big part of ... why I wanted to do it and was willing to pack up my family and move someplace where we didn’t know anybody, it was Hal,” Bramwell said. “He really loved his work, really loved UNLV, had worked very, very hard in promoting this program, the history program. And I knew that, I kind of saw it as — this may sound really cheesy — but helping, contributing to his legacy.

“He was instrumental in bringing this project here, instrumental in bringing me into this field. I really wanted to come and do a good job and keep UNLV’s public history program really highly visible and successful ... That would make me far happier than whatever kind of professional benefits I could get from writing this.”

•••

If the world of academia had tall tales, Rothman would be Paul Bunyan or John Henry.

His colleagues and students still conjure up his memory with a certain amount of awe. He was a “force of nature,” “a huge personality,” Kirk said.

Rothman’s resume “is like a phone book,” Bramwell said.

Rothman spoke fast and incessantly. He also spoke his mind. Generous in giving praise, he was equally unrestrained when delivering criticism.

“He’s this big ball of energy, and for some people that’s too much for them to handle ... (But) I loved being around him. I loved that he was bigger than life,” Bramwell said.

In the decade before his death, Rothman wrote or edited more than a dozen books. He was an expert at securing outside funding for research. Together, the five projects his old friends are completing brought nearly $575,000 to UNLV. The National Park Service is bankrolling all the research except the Water Authority study, which that agency is funding.

“Hal had a lot of contracts,” said Eugene Moehring, who was history department chairman at the time Rothman died. “Hal was very good at getting contracts, and that was very good for our public history project.”

But after Rothman was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in late 2005, fellow professors had to figure out what to do with his projects. Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a quick killer, causing patients to lose control of many of their muscles. Victims usually die within three to five years of the onset of symptoms.

In about spring 2006, Moehring began educating himself about Rothman’s unfinished projects.

“I didn’t really know a thing about them, so I had to really learn what each project involved, who was working on it, what was the stage of the progress so far,” Moehring said. “Some of them were brand-new. Others were really far along.”

•••

On one edge of UNLV’s grounds sit five rundown, temporary buildings. The one nearest the road houses a room holding several desks. A couple of panels are missing from the ceiling.

The space isn’t fancy, but when Rothman was alive, he offered it to his graduate students so they would have a quiet place to work on a campus short of offices.

Inside, on a recent afternoon, Aaron McArthur sat barefoot in a beige armchair that, along with an old cloth couch, served as makeshift lounge. On a nearby table was a 274-page draft of a history of St. Thomas that McArthur, a doctoral candidate, had written.

Rothman had asked McArthur about two years ago to work on the project, offering a steady paycheck. The student, who had never taken a class with Rothman, was flattered by the request.

Rothman said he had applied for funding for the research with McArthur in mind, McArthur said. St. Thomas was a Mormon town, and McArthur had written his master’s thesis on the significance of tabernacles in the development of Mormon communities.

“When he approached me about this project, I had no idea that he paid that much attention to what I was doing,” McArthur said.

Hunting for information on St. Thomas, McArthur visited archives and libraries in Nevada, Utah and Colorado. In April he finished writing the history, which one of Rothman’s old colleagues is editing. It could be McArthur’s first book.

•••

“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,” Rothman told UNLV Magazine in 2006. “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.”

Rothman’s students stayed by his side as his condition worsened. When he had trouble walking, they whizzed him around campus in golf carts. When he could no longer use the computer on his own, they typed his e-mails.

Now, they are the ones carrying out the work he began. And this, perhaps, is how Rothman would have wanted it to end.

He treated his students as colleagues, as capable historians, lavishing young researchers with rare opportunities. The sight of Bramwell holed up in his old office might have pleased him.

“Hal would have really liked the idea, did like the idea, that Lincoln in particular, a student whom he had known while he was still a student, would be able to use this as an opportunity to further his career,” Kirk said. “That was a passing of the torch that was very appropriate, under the circumstances.”

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