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Beloved UNLV English professor taken by COVID-19 complications

Updated August 5, 2020 - 8:32 am

During the ’70s, early in what would become a 58-year-long career at UNLV, Felicia Campbell and several other professors brought a discrimination suit against the university involving equal pay. Years later, Campbell finally, but reluctantly, accepted a settlement.

And with that money, Campbell financed a trek to the base camp of K2, the second highest mountain on Earth.

“I figured, at 52, I was too old and I’d never survive it,” Campbell told the Review-Journal in 2016, but the adventure “was wonderful. I came back somebody else, which was really good.”

That same sense of adventure and out-of-the-box thinking were hallmarks of Campbell’s career as an English professor at UNLV, where she helped legitimize the academic discipline of pop culture and embraced new literary voices and literary genres such as science fiction long before they became cool.

Above all, Campbell was a beloved and enthusiastic teacher, said UNLV associate history professor Michael Green, a colleague and friend.

“Students loved her because she was so student-centered,” Green said. “She was there for them, and she didn’t want to teach anything she didn’t enjoy, so she conveyed that enjoyment.”

Campbell died July 27 of complications from COVID-19, according to her daughter, Tracy Tuttle, whose announcement of Campbell’s death on Facebook last week brought dozens of remembrances from former students, friends and colleagues.

“There are certain people you think are going to be around forever,” Green said. “I think her life was being indomitable.”

Campbell was born in Cuba City, Wisconsin. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a doctoral degree from United States International University. She served briefly in the Marine Corps as part of its first class of women officer candidates but decided to return to academia, joining in 1962 the faculty of what then was the Southern Regional Division of the University of Nevada.

The campus then consisted of a handful of buildings and lots of undeveloped space, Green said. “She came out here as a single young woman, partly out of a sense of adventure, partly for the job, and she never lost her sense of adventure or independence.”

Campbell was the first professor at UNLV to teach African American and Asian literature and integrated into UNLV’s English curriculum science fiction and pop culture and literature about chaos theory, according to Jennifer Keene, dean of UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts.

“Beloved by her countless students, she was known for her kindness and inclusivity, stimulating teaching style and exacting academic standards,” Keene wrote in a statement to faculty members.

Campbell also was a founder of NOW in Las Vegas and the UNLV Women’s Caucus and was an organizer of what is today the UNLV Faculty Alliance. She served as president of the Popular Culture Association and executive director of the Far West Popular Culture and American Culture Associations, edited the journal Popular Culture Review, and organized an annual pop culture conference that drew to UNLV participants from all over the world.

For many years, Campbell also did weekly book reviews on KNPR-FM, introducing Southern Nevadans to everybody from up-and-coming authors to early J.K. Rowling.

“I enjoyed her intellect, I enjoyed her passion and I enjoyed, most of all, her friendship,” said Sig Rogich, president of The Rogich Communications Group. “She was a great teacher, a terrific teacher. She helped me to become a reasonably good writer.

“I was never a good student, per se. I was working my way through college,” Rogich said. “But I did an essay — she told us to pick a topic and do an essay. I picked folk music — it was 1963 — and I think she gave me an A on it.”

Bob Coffin, former Las Vegas city councilman and Nevada legislator, took two semesters of American literature with Campbell in 1967 and 1968.

“She was definitely an inspirational teacher,” he said. “She worked harder than any other professor I ever knew.”

Campbell had an ability “to explain to you and interest you in what you didn’t know” and “spent time introducing us to people who were not well-known. She had a gift for seeing who would be known later,” he said.

Campbell once suggested that Coffin write a paper about Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Coffin had trouble finding information about Vonnegut, who then was “still new and kind of an avant-garde novelist.”

In desperation, days before the paper was due, Coffin got a phone number through Vonnegut’s publisher, called the author and talked with him for a half-hour.

He completed the paper, and Campbell was so pleased with the story behind it that, Coffin said, “she never tired of (telling) that story for 50 years.”

Funeral arrangements are not yet complete, according to Keene. In a post on Campbell’s Facebook page, her daughter wrote: “She is not only survived by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren but all of you as well. Her impact was endless and she will be missed tremendously.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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