A Western historian and a Western hero
by Matt O’Brien
Hal Rothman is dying. You can hear it in his voice — what’s left of it.
The historian of the New West, defender of Las Vegas as the poster child for what the region will become as it continues to boom, fights a losing battle. Every day, says Lauralee Rothman, there’s something else her husband can’t do: use his hands, lift his legs, walk, talk, swallow.
In December 2005, Hal was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Every patient handles the diagnosis differently, says Dr. Steve Glyman of Nevada Neurological Consultants. Some patients, he adds, “just crack.” Some become reserved and depressed. Some get steely and determined.
But few patients have handled the diagnosis — a death sentence, really — like Hal Rothman.
“When you see how he is handling it, it’s really admirable,” says Glyman, Hal’s doctor and a family friend. “You learn what is important in life and what really matters to him. When you see him persevering and writing and trying to live a full life, it gives you hope for the future.”
After teaching history at Wichita State University, Hal — a former roadie for the Eagles, the Rolling Stones and other popular rock acts — accepted an associate professor position at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1992. He became a full professor in 1997, and chaired the history department for three years. He edited or co-edited several books, including Devil’s Bargain: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West; The Grit Beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas; and Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century. He was also the mainstream media’s go-to guy on all things Vegas. He has been interviewed by CBS, CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and many other media outlets on subjects ranging from the rapidly urbanizing West to Elvis.
Rothman’s productivity before the diagnosis was impressive; his productivity since has been simply stunning. He taught an online course. He blogged for NewWest.net and wrote an op ed for the High Country News syndicate, Writers on the Range. He also worked on a Nevada history textbook and a history of the National Park Service and edited a book on Israeli environmental history.
“I stay active because I feel like I have a lot left to say,” said Hal in July. “There is much to do still, and frankly not enough time. I doubt I will live to finish the Park Service history. I hope to write as much as I can and find someone who can finish it.” Not long after saying that, Hal lost all movement in his arms and legs. He had a feeding tube installed. Finally, in October, he stopped writing.
But back when Hal was healthy, it should be noted, he did more than just write about Las Vegas. He got involved in the community. He helped start two Ph.D. programs at the university, the Midbar Kodesh synagogue and a Little League team. He was a member of the Clark County Community Growth Task Force, which gave county commissioners recommendations on dealing with the incredibly fast growth of the area.
“It’s all well and good to talk about things,” says Las Vegas author and history professor Michael Green, “but somebody at some point has to do it. Hal could certainly talk about it, but he was active, too. I think we have an obligation in this profession to be out there, whether it’s talking to a TV station or to a group in the community.
“A lot of scholars sit in libraries, and too many over the years have gathered as much dust as the books. That’s not Hal’s approach. He approached everything as a contact sport, which makes this even tougher to watch and to think about.”
Hal, 48, has fought ALS with dignity, determination and courage. Instead of hiding, he has helped bring awareness to the degenerative disease.
“We’ve been blessed with some really great people who have touched our lives,” says Lauralee Rothman. “Somehow, they just seem to come into our lives when we need them most. I think a sense of humor helps, too. I don’t know. We just look to other people and what they’ve done for us for courage and inspiration.”
Matt O’Brien is news editor of CityLife, an alternative weekly paper based in Las Vegas, Nevada.© High Country News