My Next Chapter

When I write a book, one of my greatest satisfactions is finishing a chapter. It brings a remarkable feeling of accomplishment. A few days or weeks ago, I started writing with a vague outline of what I wanted to say, and now, my words are on paper and I’ve told the story I want to tell. Better yet, I’m ready for the next chapter, for new stories to share.

Last week, for example, I finished writing the chapter in my Sands Hotel book about Frank Sinatra’s first stint at the casino in October 1953. It’s a great story that I can’t wait to share with everyone, and I hope that my readers can know even a hint of the connection I felt while writing it. Listening to period-specific Sinatra, reading everything I could about him, trying to see the world as it was then—it felt like I was living with him while I was writing that chapter. That was the only way to tell the story. I hope that I succeeded. For better or worse, Frank’s voice now has a place in my head, along with so many others I’ve written about; just a little more insight into that talented, complicated, artist. I feel richer for it.

But that chapter’s finished, and now I’m writing a chapter about publicity in Las Vegas—and more specifically Al Freeman’s work at the Sands—in the mid-1950s, and although I still hear echoes of Frank more than I did before I wrote about him, I’m just as excited to explore the world of public relations—media junkets, atomic pin-ups, diving grandmothers, and all the other brilliant, wacky ways Freeman and his compatriots sold Las Vegas.

And then when I’m done that, I’ve got some big events in 1955 to write about; mostly the Sands’ takeover of the struggling Dunes and Carl Cohen’s arrival as casino manager. Another story that needs to be told. And there are more stories after that, right up until the casino gets imploded to make way for the Venetian. When I finish the final chapter, it’s time for a new book. The process starts again.

So I’m feeling a sense of achievement as I begin the latest chapter of my professional life. I have accepted a position as the Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. If you’re not in the academic bubble, that title might not mean much, so I’ll explain what it means to me: I will be helping other faculty members at UNLV advance professionally, find opportunities for success, and, I hope, be happier and more fulfilled.

I first came to UNLV in 2001, fresh off working in the surveillance room at the Trump Taj Mahal. I was attracted by the job—the chance to work with the biggest collection of gaming materials in the world, to help people better understand gambling, a force that changed my hometown of Atlantic City and my own life so profoundly. Growing up, I wondered why people gambled in casinos, why that industry had such an allure. All of my academic and professional work on the subject has been an effort to answer that question.

After 22 years of researching and writing about gaming (my first visit to UNLV was to work on my dissertation back in 1997), I think that if I haven’t figured it out by now, I never will (for my answers, read anything I’ve written, but particularly Grandissimo and the upcoming Sands book). So it’s time for the next question.

That question is, how can I help faculty at UNLV be happier professionally, more productive creatively, and better teachers and counselors to our incredible students?  How do we build and sustain an institution that is worthy of the trust our students place in it, that truly serves the community?

I’m lucky to be joining an office filled with dedicated, intelligent, hard-working people who think along similar lines, and I look forward to being able to contribute something to the university that has done so much for me and for so many people who I care about. Great things happen here every day, small things, but things that make a difference. A student mastering a skill that will help him get the job he wants; a prospective law student learning how to create a foundation for her future career; a medical researcher unlocking knowledge that will make people healthier. The chance to help in any small way make all this happen is both humbling and inspiring.

I first took a university job because it seemed like a good way to indulge my curiosity, to learn more. Teaching was a way to share what I learned. In the years since, I’ve fallen in love with another aspect of teaching: not the part where you stand in front of a class, lecturing, but the part where you sit across a desk from your student, listening to them and answering their questions. Sometimes it’s just being a sounding board. Usually there are no easy answers. But I honestly don’t find anything more fulfilling. Even the recognition my scholarly work has gotten doesn’t feel as real, as important, as the sense of having done the right thing I get when I work with students.

Which is my way of saying that I will still be teaching at UNLV. If I had any doubts, the excellent students in my two classes this semester—casino history and the history of the United States after 1877—would erase them. There are few places I feel more at home than in the classroom.

I am, however, leaving the Center for Gaming Research. Over the past 18 years, I have accomplished a great deal there. Looking back, some of the highlights are creating the CGR website, which is a great, free resource for all kinds of gaming information; starting the Eadington Fellows program, which simultaneously honors  the memory of foundational gaming studies scholar Bill Eadington and promotes the unparalleled set of materials at the Center; and the UNLV Gaming Press, which has brought some of the knowledge produced at UNLV to a broader audience. More than that are the hundreds (maybe thousands) of people I talked to over the years who I hope went away with at least a slightly better understanding of the phenomenon that is gambling and the industry that is gaming.

While I will continue to research and write about casino history and games—I have several projects in the works in addition to the Sands book—I won’t be at the Center anymore. If you have any questions about the website, comments about the usefulness of the Center’s work, or concerns about resources that you have come to rely on, please direct them to special.collections@unlv.edu. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a question about the tenure and promotion process at UNLV or faculty satisfaction, I’m your guy.

Thank you for reading my work and supporting me over the years. I have had so many wonderful conversations about Las Vegas and history over the years. The connections and friendships I have made through sharing my passion are another unexpected pleasure of what I do. I look forward to following my curiosity and sharing what I learn.

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