Tales out of school

For our annual Back to School issue, the RN&R explores hidden history at the university

A statue of John W. Mackay graces the quad of the University of Nevada, Reno. It was given to the university by Mackay’s son. In truth, though, it wasn’t intended for UNR originally.

A statue of John W. Mackay graces the quad of the University of Nevada, Reno. It was given to the university by Mackay’s son. In truth, though, it wasn’t intended for UNR originally.


Nevada State University conferred its first diplomas in 1891—nearly two decades after its founding in Elko—on a graduating class of three men. The 2016 spring commencement of what’s now known as the University of Nevada, Reno celebrated the graduation of more than 2,500 students.

A person might learn these basic facts and more on a guided tour of the campus. However, at an institution that’s nearing its sesquicentennial, there is, of course, much more history than meets the eye.

The following stories are less likely to be dispensed during a campus tour. Sourced largely from university archives, oral histories and historical newspapers, these snippets tell only a small fraction of UNR’s lesser known—in some cases, perhaps even hidden—history.

Building on burial ground

It’s a terribly common urban legend: a building went up on the site of a former cemetery, and now it’s haunted. That claim has been made about many of the dormitories at UNR, but there’s only one group of students who definitely reside on former burial ground.

When the university’s Nevada Living Learning Community was being constructed in 2011, workers unearthed six sets of human remains. It was a surprise to everyone involved in the project—not because they were unaware of the Catholic cemetery that once stood at the location, but because they thought all of the bodies had been removed around the time the university acquired the land nearly half a century earlier.

According to a page on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Reno website, “In 1879, a transfer of deed was recorded for a parcel of land that was to be used as a cemetery. The land was transferred to a Catholic priest for the use of St. Mary’s Parish. That parish and its cemetery eventually became St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral Parish and cemetery in 1910.”

In 1963, the people buried at St. Thomas were disinterred and moved about a mile north to Our Mother of Sorrows cemetery.

Dr. James E. Church came to UNR in the late 19th century to teach literature, Latin, German and art. He was a lover of the arts and helped found the Nevada Art Gallery, which later became the Nevada Museum of Art.


The Living Learning Center is the only confirmed former burial ground atop which university students now live. But it isn’t the only final resting place that UNR has had an interest in repurposing. Hillside Cemetery west of campus once belonged to the university, too, but was never developed. A passage in a 1988 U.S. Tax Court decision concerning Hillside provides some possible clues as to why: “The public outcry with respect to St. Thomas was occasioned by the discovery that old headstones and monuments removed from St. Thomas were unceremoniously dumped in a gully.”

Resting in plain sight

The Living Learning Center may be the only dorm that really was built on burial ground—but it’s not the only spot on campus to serve as a final resting place. According to Special Collections Librarian and University Archivist Betty Glass, when new rounds of renovation began on the Church Fine Arts building, she figured someone had better remind the people in charge that Dr. James E. Church and his wife are interred behind the building’s cornerstone.

According to Nevada Humanities’ Online Nevada Encyclopedia, a 23-year-old Church came to the university “in 1892 to teach Latin and German, literature and art appreciation.” Church was a lover of the arts. He helped found the Nevada Art Gallery, which later became the Nevada Museum of Art.

When the new fine arts building was completed on campus, it was named after Church—who died in 1959, three years before its opening. His contributions to art in the region were great, but Church is actually best known for having developed a technique to determine water content in snow pack. The method is still in use by agencies like the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Department of Agriculture.

Going ape

UNR has had its share of noteworthy students over the years, but one stands out. When she died in 2007, obituaries and remembrances of her were published in newspapers and magazines across the country, including the New York Times and National Geographic.

Washoe, the chimpanzee, was born in Africa in 1965. According to the nonprofit group Friends of Washoe, she was captured and given to the U.S. Air Force before being “adopted by Drs. Beatrix T. and R. Allen Gardner on June 21, 1966.”

The Gardners were animal behavior researchers at UNR, and they enlisted Washoe in a new study—dubbed “Project Washoe.” The goal was to break down the language barrier between humans and chimpanzees by raising chimps like human children and teaching them American Sign Language. Washoe is estimated to have learned around 250 words.

She lived in Reno from 1966 to 1970, and while she was raised at the Gardners’ home, Washoe spent time on campus. The researcher who eventually became Washoe’s primary caretaker and teacher, Roger Fouts, then a PhD student at UNR, first met her at the university nursery school where she played on the playground when there were no children around.

The students in this photo are fighting hand-to-hand for possession of about a dozen canes during the annual “cane rush,” an event that was held at UNR in the early 1900s.


According to Fouts’ book, Next of Kin, Washoe often spent time on campus during the weekends—until some spoilsports put an end to it. Before Fouts and his family relocated with Washoe to the University of Oklahoma in 1970, he said, visits to UNR’s campus had become risky, and Washoe had been banned from visiting the psychology department in Mack Social Sciences—“because the psych professors working overtime were upset at having to shut their office doors to keep her from grabbing their coffee mugs and sodas.”

Silvering the screen

In Next of Kin, Fouts described strolling with Gardner accross the campus, which, he said, “ironically was where the Ronald Reagan chimpanzee movie, Bedtime for Bonzo, was filmed.”

The movie was clearly inspired by earlier primate language research conducted at universities during the ’40s; however, it seems Fouts was wrong about the movie being filmed at UNR—or, at the very least, evidence to support the claim is well hidden. It’d be an easy mistake to make, though, because the campus was popular with Hollywood studios for many years.

Movies filmed on campus include Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble (1944), Margie (1946), An Apartment for Peggy (1948), Mother is a Freshman (1949), Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949), Captive City (1952), 5 Against the House (1955) and Hilda Crane (1956).

According to a post on the university’s Special Collections department blog, “The film studios utilized the university’s student body as a ready pool of extras. However, after 1948, due to the number of students cutting class,” the practice was banned.

Rushing in

The rivalry between the UNR and University of Nevada, Las Vegas football teams is longstanding and well known to most Renoites. The teams have faced off in a “Battle for Nevada” game annually for nearly half a century now. But long before UNR students began donning “F-UNLV” shirts on game day, there was another, more bitter and bloodier annual rivalry—the cane rush.

According to scholar Winton Solberg, class conflict at the turn of the 20th century “manifested itself in the ’rush’ tradition, an organized struggle between the freshmen and sophomore classes that took a variety of forms in older colleges.”

A cane rush was a violent affair during which about two dozen men—half freshmen, half sophomores—fought hand-to-hand to gain possession of about 12 canes. Black and white photos from Special Collections show tousled and bloodied young men during and in the aftermath of cane rushes on the university’s quadrangle in 1902, 1910, 1911 and 1915.

Dr. Church and his wife were interred behind the cornerstone in the Church Fine Arts building upon its completion. Church had passed three years earlier in 1959.


In a 2006 Nevada Silver & Blue article, Ed Cohen, then director of university publications and communication, painted a picture of what cane rush might have looked like at UNR: “Spectators lined the sides of the field, eager for the contest to begin. And at the sound of a pistol firing, it did. The two lines of young men, none of whom was wearing any protective gear, rushed forward and came together in violent collisions.”

Students who participated in a cane rush were likely to be left with broken noses or ribs. But, according to Cohen, members of the losing class suffered a far worse fate: They were forced to wear little blue beanies on their heads for the rest of the school year.

Special Collections has two of the actual canes young men fought over during this brutal campus competition. The blue beanies, however, are not to be found.

Seeing ghosts

UNR students have, in recent years, done plenty of joking and serious complaining about construction projects on campus. With two new buildings currently being designed, another two already under construction, and an additional half dozen completed in the last decade, they’re not making much ado about nothing.

In truth, though, the construction is really just business as usual.

In a February 2000 article, Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Steve Smith suggested that if the university was “looking for an official motto, it might try ’Pardon Our Progress.’” At the time, UNR only had $52 million in projects underway. Today, that figure is nearly double, and that’s not counting current renovation projects on existing buildings.

As old buildings have been renovated and torn down, the face of campus has changed—and bits of the history hidden in its architecture and design lost. It’s likely few students know that the Thompson building once housed a theater, or that dumbwaiters carried books to the different floors in the Clark Administration building when it served as the university library.

Often, the only clues left behind are placards, like the one near Hilliard Plaza and Reynolds School of Journalism that marks the spot of the old football field.

Careful observers can still see the ghost of a porch that once extended from the east side of Manzanita Hall.


Still, for those who know where to look, there are at least a few interesting reminders of the past. Some are more obvious, like a sign on the east side of the old Virginia Street Gym that notes the location of a Cold War era nuclear fallout shelter. Others are harder to spot. Take for example, Manzanita Hall, where the careful observer can spot a “porch ghost.” Historical photos of the dorm show a large covered porch that extended out from the building’s east side. According to the Reno Historical website, it was added around 1910 and removed during renovations in the ’50s. Today, a thin strip of wood that runs the length of the building, just above eye-level, is the only indication the porch was ever there.

A gift that keeps giving

No tour of UNR would be complete without a stop by the statue of John W. Mackay, which sits at the north end of the university quad. When tour guides lead prospective students around the UNR campus, they always stop here—not to talk about John Mackay, a man who made his fortune in the silver mines of the Comstock Lode, but about his son, Clarence Mackay.

According to a webpage in UNR’s digital archives, Clarence gave the university approximately $2 million between 1907 and 1935. He paid for construction of the quad, the Mackay Athletic Field, the Mackay School of Mines and the Mackay Science Hall. For years, he also paid the salaries of the school of mines’ faculty.

And, of course, there’s the statue of his father. Clarence paid for that, too. The statue was made by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the man behind Mount Rushmore. A dedication ceremony for it and the school of mines was held on June 10, 1908.

What many people—then and now—might not know is that the statue was more or less a re-gift from Clarence.

According to a footnote in The History of Nevada: Volume I, published in 1915, “The Hon. Sam P. Davis, then Controller of the State of Nevada, was largely instrumental in securing the Borglum statue of John W. Mackay. Mr. Davis conceived the idea of placing such a statue in the grounds of the State Capitol at Carson City, Nevada. He visited Clarence Mackay in New York City and secured the promise of the statue. Later, when Mr. Mackay became deeply interested in the University of Nevada, it was deemed more suitable to place this noble bronze figure in front of the Mackay School of Mines, where it now stands.”

A replica of the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in Italy are hung at the entrance to Special Collections in the Mathewson IGT Knowledge Center. According to a webpage in the university’s digital archives, the doors were given to UNR “by Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, wife of General Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1948” and once stood in the family’s Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City.”

On Feb. 24, 1963, an article was printed in the Nevada State Journal with the headline “Nuclear Reactor to be Installed on University of Nevada Campus.” The article explained that the reactor would be used “for study programs in nuclear engineering, technology, radiation chemistry and reactor physics” but failed to mention where on the campus it would be placed. Photos from Special Collections suggest that it found a home at the university’s campus in Stead. The reactor was given to the University of California, Santa Barbara in the early ’70s, after UNR’s nuclear engineering program had ceased to exist.

When the university was preparing to demolish the Noble H. Getchell Library in 2013, they discovered a time capsule from 1961 in its cornerstone and displayed the items contained therein—including a photo of Noble Getchell and a University of Nevada Catalog for 1961-1962—at the Knowledge Center. Time capsules, funnily enough, are often buried and forgotten. Photos from 1987 show local elementary school children burying one somewhere near Fleischmann Planetarium, though the exact location seems to be unknown.

On Dec. 30, 1916, an article appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal noting that the university’s oldest fraternity, T.H.P.O., had been granted a charter from Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The story went on to explain that the fraternity got its start in a dormitory—called the Rams Pasture—above the old mechanical building, which burned in 1895. For years, the meaning of T.H.P.O. remained a mystery. In a 2006 Nevada Silver & Blue article, writer Michael Fischer explained that the residents of the Rams Pasture, men who lived too far to travel home after school, “found themselves the target of hazing by the downtowners. ‘In order to hold their own,’ a student from the early 1900s … recalled many years later, ‘They got together and formed a little association, and they called it the hill protective organization or T.H.P.O for short.’”

RN&R News Editor Dennis Myers recalled a story that appeared in the Sagebrush, UNR’s school newspaper, in September 1977: “UNR physics department chair Philip Altick opened the door to a small room in the physics building that had formerly been used as a darkroom and discovered it had been converted into a fully outfitted office, complete with desk, bookshelves, refrigerator, filing cabinet, all of it—the furniture, the posters on the wall, the books in the bookcase, the candy jar on the desk—stolen from the chemistry and physics buildings over a period of months. (An inventory in the filing cabinet listed everything in the office and where it all was stolen from.)”

Are you a university history buff? Is there a UNR story you think us remiss in not addressing? Write to us at renoletters@newsreview.com.