Some people serve as impassive onlookers whenever history is made. Sometimes the risk and the stakes are too great, so many simply stand to the side and let it happen, for good or for bad.
Bob Cashell wasn’t that way.
Cashell, the former mayor of Reno who passed away on Tuesday at age 81, chose throughout the course of his life to always take big, bold steps, often right into the middle of history. He wasn’t afraid of making a little history, or changing its trajectory. In fact, he wasn’t scared of many things. And he certainly didn’t shy away from any major challenges facing him.
That’s why with his passing it’s worth noting the immense impact he had on the University. It can be argued that few had more of an influence on the University’s direction, whether it was more than 40 years ago in a role that eventually helped Joe Crowley become the University’s 13th president in 1979, and later, during 12 years as mayor of Reno, when the University began to make serious inroads in its relationship with the community.
Last month, after several of years of forming two-way community partnerships, the University learned it had gained the prestigious “Carnegie Engaged” classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement for Teaching. Classifications like that don’t happen overnight, and Cashell, perhaps more than any other Reno mayor before him, understood the luster a quality land-grant university can bring to a community.
“Bob Cashell was one of the most influential figures the University of Nevada, Reno has ever seen,” University President Marc Johnson said. “His involvement with our University spanned more than four decades -- as a member of the Board of Regents, as a key booster and donor to the University, and as Mayor of the City of Reno. Whatever hat Bob wore during his career in public life, he did so with unbridled passion for the people of Northern Nevada, uncommon optimism for what the future held for all of Nevada, and an uncommon personal authenticity that made his life and his times something we shall always remember.”
Cashell was colorful, and often spoke bluntly about any issue. In the early 1990s, when it seemed that Wolf Pack athletics under then athletic director and football coach Chris Ault might’ve overleaped its current funding and facilities by jumping from the Division I-AA Big Sky Conference (which the Pack had been a member of since 1979) to the Division I-A Big West Conference (which in some ways mirrors today’s Mountain West Conference), Cashell was asked by a sportswriter what he thought of the move.
“My first reaction about the move?” Cashell said, chuckling lightly, “was that my good friend Chris Ault might’ve drank one too many Diet Pepsis.”
Of course, Cashell and Ault were each other’s champions. Cashell knew that if any athletic program in the country could make a successful jump from Division I-AA to Division I, it was Wolf Pack athletics under Ault. And sure enough, the Pack football team became the first in NCAA history to win a conference championship in its first Division I season.
Cashell had been there every step of the way for Ault, making key donations to what is now the the Bob and Nancy Cashell Fieldhouse. The Fieldhouse was little more than a set of locker rooms until Cashell entered the picture, transforming it with major renovations in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Cashell, a Texan, had come to northern Nevada in 1964. He bought Bill and Effie’s truck stop, which seemingly was on the wrong side of the highway in 1967, renaming it “Boomtown.” He also was a pivotal figure in the selection of Joe Crowley as president. “Boomtown” became a huge success, as Cashell marketed it beautifully, using novel ideas like the one described by Dwayne Kling in his masterful book of Reno’s gaming history, “Rise of the Biggest Little City: An Encyclopedic History of Reno Gaming, 1931-81”: “In September 1972, Bob Cashell initiated one of his greatest marketing ploys. To publicize his truck stop and casino, he offered all truckers in the United States a free full-course barbecue buffet with steaks, ribs, and beans. The only thing the truckers had to do was stop in, pick up a plate, and get in line. This was something unheard of at the time, and it resulted in Boomtown becoming one of the most popular truck stops in the country.” By 1979 Cashell, one of the community’s most vociferous boosters of the University, had been elected to the Board of Regents. The campus and the entire system of higher education in Nevada was in tumult in 1978-79, following the ouster of three system presidents, including University President Max Milam. Joe Crowley, department of political science chairman, was named acting president in the wake of Milam’s firing in 1978. If not for the advocacy of Crowley’s candidacy for the fulltime position by Cashell and other key campus and community leaders, however, Crowley might not have ever been appointed full-time president on March 23, 1979.
Cashell and others pushed to have Crowley’s name added to the list of finalists when originally Crowley’s name was omitted. Cashell wouldn’t take no for an answer as far as the Crowley candidacy was concerned.
One day the phone rang at Crowley’s home. Crowley wasn’t there. His wife, Joy, was.
“Is Joe there?” Cashell asked, in his unmistakable, gravely Texas drawl.
“No, Bob, he’s not there,” Joy replied.
“Well, Joy, I need your help,” Cashell said, growing impatient. “I’ve got something and I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve got a petition with 1,500 signatures from people on campus in support of Joe. What the hell is he running for, God?”
Paul Page, then the University’s vice president for advancement, remembered how then Regent Cashell made sure that Crowley’s name was put on the list of finalists.
“Bob said, ‘There are two trains coming toward each other and I have the bigger train,’” Page said, “and Joe’s name is going to be on that list.”
Crowley’s tenure as fulltime president would run a record-setting period, from 1979-2001.
Cashell also ensured that the UNLV-Wolf Pack football rivalry would never go away. Today we mark our football calendars with that game each fall. But after the Rebels defeated the Wolf Pack in Reno in 1979, the two teams did not play again until 1983. The two teams were not in the same conference and not even at the same divisional level. UNLV was part of the Division I Pacific Coast Athletic Association (later the Big West) while the Wolf Pack was part of the Division I-AA Big Sky. Scheduling became haphazard, a little heated based on the political alignment of the state, and increasingly difficult.
“They passed us by in the 1980s,” Ault told the Nevada Appeal’s Joe Santoro in 2010. “They wanted to leave us behind. They had all the money, the big school and the nice stadium. … I think it was three years we didn’t play (1980-82) and then we only played them every other year for a while (1983, ’85, ’87). After that when the contract ended in 1988 I lobbied the state and said, ‘We have to play this game every year. It’s important to both schools. It’s important to the people of this state.’”
Cashell, Nevada’s Lieutenant Governor from 1983-87, still had huge pull in the state. He worked behind the scenes and in front of every microphone, making sure that the series would be held every year, like a true rivalry game should.
Wrote Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray on Monday: “Cashell helped keep the Nevada-UNLV football rivalry afloat. In the mid-1980s, the Rebels pushed to drop the series before the Nevada Board of Regents, led by Cashell … reinstated the rivalry on a full-time basis in 1989. The teams have played every year since then.”
On Nov. 6, 1991, during a speech honoring Cashell and his wife, Nancy, at the American Lung Association dinner, Crowley spoke of couple’s value to the community.
“These are two relentlessly involved, unfailingly giving people,” Crowley said. Of Bob Cashell, Crowley added that it was impossible to distinguish Cashell’s colorful, at times fiery personality, from the enormous impact he had made on the University and the community. If there was one thing that distinguished Cashell as a politician, Crowley seemed to be saying, it was that Cashell always found a way, in the most unforgettable style, to get things done.
“As chairman (of the Board of Regents), he expanded our parliamentary horizons by providing an entirely new interpretation of ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ and … has enriched our vocabularies by his unique approach to words of more than three syllables and by liberally sharing them with us as a variety of poignant Texas expressions,” Crowley said.
More seriously, Crowley added, “They have never stopped being involved. They have helped. They have cared. They are two terrific people who represent citizenship in the highest and best sense of the word.”
Nowhere was this more evident over the final 12 years of Cashell’s life in the public arena, when he served as mayor of Reno from 2002-2014. He often called it the best job he ever had. He often said those words to anyone he ever came into contact during that period.
As the University began to grow and reassert itself in the early 2010s following the great recession, Cashell was there, as he always was, to help. In April 2012 he again advocated for a candidate to become the University’s fulltime president. Provost Marc Johnson had been named acting president with the sudden death of Milt Glick the year before. Cashell, as mayor, gave public testimony in support of Johnson to become appointed fulltime president during a Regents meeting on April 20, 2012.
“He’s gotten involved with the community,” Cashell said of Johnson. “He tells us what’s going on at the University, and that really helps us stay in tune with what’s going on. We really need the leadership of Dr. Johnson.”
It wasn’t all that surprising that Cashell would lobby for Johnson as president. The two men, though different in style, had always worked hard at listening to many different perspectives, and finding the best course of action based on consensus. While Cashell could be hard-charging, there was also a collaborative part of him that often came to the fore when dealing with complex issues, wrote Zachary Bankston in his 2014 doctoral dissertation, “A New Man in Northern Nevada’s Consolidation Discourse,” that focused largely on Cashell’s leadership: “Cashell’s clue-ins are invitations that create expectations and reinforce to the public that good will come from the deliberating. Via the conversational engagement with the public, Cashell leans upon the universal outcomes of deliberation—to arrive at the best possible solution for the community by incorporating the most perspectives of the community, with the entirety of the process (supposedly) open to the community.”
Later that meeting, Johnson was appointed by the Board of Regents to become the University’s 16th president.
Cashell continued to keep the drumbeat for the University strong throughout his time as mayor. In spring 2013, Cashell issued a proclamation that encouraged all citizens and employees of the City of Reno to support the efforts of the University. This support included the creation of “Wolf Pack Fridays,” where the hope was that all the citizens of Reno would wear Wolf Pack blue every Friday. That October on a perfect Friday fall evening, hundreds turned out in downtown Reno for the first “March from the Arch,” where the community – including Cheerleader-in-Chief/Mayor Bob Cashell – marched from beneath the iconic Reno Arch up Virginia Street to the Quad for a pep rally, carnival and Lighting of the Wolf prior to the next day’s game at Mackay Stadium against UNLV.
Although there has been no word yet on a memorial for one of the most influential figures in the history of the University, perhaps that 2013 City of Reno proclamation and March from the Arch might be a good place to start when the University and all of Reno thinks of honoring Bob Cashell.
It would be hard to imagine Cashell doing anything other than smiling and perhaps hugging any person he might see on a future Friday wearing Wolf Pack blue and marching to campus not only in his honor, but in recognition of the special bond that existed between a University and a man who wasn’t afraid to make some history on its behalf.