In this episode of Sagebrushers, University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval speaks with Senior Editor for News & Features John Trent. Trent is a two-time graduate of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism, earning his bachelor's degree in 1987 and his master's degree in 2000. He has a long history of telling the University’s stories and of writing award-winning articles and high-profile speeches in Northern Nevada. Trent is currently under contract with the University of Nevada Press for a 150-year history book of the University, which is scheduled for release sometime in 2024.
During the episode, Sandoval and Trent discuss Trent’s personal history and ties to Northern Nevada and the University where his father was a faculty member starting in 1967. From meeting his wife while they both worked for the student newspaper to some of the discoveries he has made through his research for the 150th book, particularly about the University’s early faculty including Hannah Clapp, Leroy Brown and Fred Hillman, Trent shares a wealth of information about how this campus has transformed many lives, including his own.
Sagebrushers – S2 Ep. 16 – Senior Editor for News & Features John Trent
Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Senior Editor for News & Features John Trent explore some of the history that has shaped the University of Nevada, Reno.
John Trent: You realize that's why the University has become successful. We have a great mission, but we've had better people who have brought that mission to life throughout our history who've believed in it.
Brian Sandoval: In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome John Trent, senior editor for news and features in the Office of Marketing and Communications. I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and President of the University, and I'm your host of Sagebrushers.
Brian Sandoval: John is a two-time graduate of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism, earning his bachelor's degree in 1987 and his master's degree in 2000. He's a former two-time Nevada Sports Writer of the Year who worked in Nevada newspapers for a decade before joining the University as a writer and editor from 1998 to 2003. He then joined the Office of Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn as Governor Guinn‘s lead speech writer and deputy press secretary from 2004 to 2006 before returning to the University to take on his current role. Currently, he is under contract with the University of Nevada Press for a 150 year history book of the University, which is scheduled for release sometime in 2024. Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University's campus. John, welcome to Sagebrushers. I'm really looking forward to diving into the 150 year history of our University and some other fun facts about you. So before we discuss the University's history, tell us a little bit about your ties to the University, your background, and your father was faculty on campus, correct?
John Trent: That's correct. President Sandoval. And thank you for this opportunity to visit with you. I really appreciate it. Yeah, my father was a faculty member of the College of Education, so we moved here in 1967. He had been a young assistant professor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and it was a great opportunity for him professionally, and we've lived here ever since. So from an early age, my connection to this campus has been pretty strong. I can remember my dad's office, for example, and the College of Education was in Thompson Hall. I can remember spending afternoons with my dad as he'd be doing his work and I'd wander out on the quad and run around. So, this was a bit of a playground for me as I grew up. And since that time, it's become kind of the center of my life, both professionally and personally I'd say.
Brian Sandoval: Wow. I mean, if there's someone with more wolf pack in their DNA, I want to meet 'em. I mean, you've literally spent your life on this campus.
John Trent: As you know, it’s a special place. I think the first time I was on campus, I was like four or five years old. When you step on this campus, you feel something and it's something that, if you let it, resides deeply in you and it really changes how you view people, the community of Reno, Northern Nevada, and why this is such a special place. There's no place like it, I think, in the country, just because of the special connections that we make on this campus. I know your story is very similar in that you found a purpose on this campus. I feel like I have too, and I think a number of people feel that very same way.
Brian Sandoval: Oh, thank you. And before we get into the history of the University, and I don't know if there's anyone out there who knows it any better than you do, but tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
John Trent: Oh, well thanks for that. Yeah, so I'm a graduate of the University. My two daughters are graduates of this University. My dad taught here. My mom who was a stay-at-home mom in the 1970s, she came back to school and got her degree here at the University. My sister graduated from the University. I met my wife who was a student here while we were working at the student newspaper, the Sagebrush, and she's put up with me ever since. So that part is really, really a big part of my story. And then also, as you know, I'm a distance runner. My family are all distance runners as well. We run ultra marathons and that's a big part of our lives away from work. Both my daughters have run a hundred mile races, I've run a hundred mile races, I've run a hundred mile races with them. So we go out and we for these long weekends, we get an opportunity to see each other at our worst and then at our best when we finish these things. So it's been a great family activity for us all and we're family runners. We're super proud of that. And that's the other part of this I've seen this University develop over the years and I've seen the running community develop over the years too. And those are the two things that I'm most intimately involved with. And it really, really kind of powers me through each day. I get excited about running and I get excited about the University.
Brian Sandoval: And I know you're modest, but how many times have you run that Western states race?
John Trent: Yeah, so the Western states hundred mile endurance run is the oldest trail race, a hundred mile trail race in America. It started in 1974, so I finished it 11 times. My first finish was 1997. My most recent was 2021. And I'm on the board of trustees for that organization as well. In my humble opinion, it's the greatest race in the world because it takes you from the beauty of Olympic Valley where the 1960 winter Olympics were held and you go up and over that head wall into the Granite Chief wilderness and then make your way into the California gold country. And again, if you're a fan of history as I am, you go through these old communities that no longer exist and you run in and out of these canyons where these miners back in the 1860’s were finding California's wealth. And then you finish it on the track at Auburn, California at the high school there. It's an amazing experience and it's one that I've discovered a lot about myself. There are times when you want to stop, but you don't, you keep going, you always push forward. The relentless forward progress that's part of getting to the finish line is something like that is unlike anything else in life.
Brian Sandoval: Well, that's just another example of that Nevada grit in that Nevada pioneer spirit, that you get through no matter what.
John Trent: That's true.
Brian Sandoval: Well, so it's fascinating that you've got to witness some of the history of this campus in addition to writing about it. So let's talk about the topic of the day and the year, really our sesquicentennial celebration. So we kicked off our year long celebration on October 12th of this year, and we'll be celebrating through October 12th, 2024. One of the exciting projects related to our celebration is the book that you are working on about our 150 year history. So, can you give our listeners a quick summary of what they can expect from “The University of Nevada, Reno 1874 to 2024, 150 Years of Inspiring Excellence”?
John Trent: Well, part of the origin story of this, President Sandoval starts with you. I remember there were conversations about, how do we make this year special for the campus? How do we bring it to life to let people know that this is a really, really important time in our history? And really, this was your idea. You thought it would be a good idea to do a book about our history. There've been a couple of books that have been written in the past about our history and they’re excellent books. They haven't been updated in a while. So that was the opportunity was to try to, based on the work that had been done in the past, to sort of bring this 150 year history to life in this year 2023 into 2024, this ses- sesque centennial celebration-
Brian Sandoval: It's not easy to say!
John Trent: It’s not! To bring it to life. And so that was kind of the driving force, and I have to thank the University of Nevada Press. They were very receptive to this project. JoAnne Banducci and Curtis Vickers very much embraced the idea and thought it would be a worthy publication for the press, which I think is really cool just because the University of Nevada, Reno press is one of these great gems that speak again to the history of our institution. It's been around for more than 60 years. And so to be able to write this book about our history produced by our own press, it's kind of like a really fortunate circumstance. And what I've tried to do is you can't sit down and write, okay, starting on in 1862 with the Morrill Land Grant Act and walk everybody through all of that. It would be a couple of thousand pages. So, what I've tried to do is pick out the important moments, the important people, and the themes that kind of not only defined who we were when we started, but who we are today and who we hope to be in the future. It's been a fascinating exercise and frankly, I thought I knew a lot about over our history. I know a lot more about it now.
Brian Sandoval: For me, it's one of our most sacred responsibilities to preserve and tell our history for better or for worse. I mean because there are warts, there's no doubt about that. And there's also a lot of things to be proud of. So where do you start? I mean, obviously you started in 1874, maybe a little bit back in the Nevada Constitutional Convention, but briefly talk about where you started the book.
John Trent: Well, having been governor during the state of Nevada's a 150th anniversary, Nevada was not a very old state when it was decided that a University, a state university was needed. So I started with that and worked my way through the history. And what I always try to do, President Sandoval, in any of the type of writing that I've done over the years is you have to find people. You have to find the inspirational stories as you mentioned, maybe the low points, the high points of people's lives and kind of weave them in. And I was really fortunate early on, I started digging into some of the early faculty who were on our campus. The University opened its doors in Elko in 1874 for a number of different reasons, could not find traction out there. And then it was moved to Reno. And so the first faculty member in Hannah Clapp and the University President Leroy Brown. Their task was to somehow find a purpose for this University.
John Trent: And I found in Hannah Clapp’s story in particular, a person who embraced what could be greatness. She was the type of person who brought out the best in people. She was a teacher, she had been an educator. She'd come over here in a covered wagon first to California and then back to Nevada. And education was everything to her. She was incredibly passionate about it and always saw the good in people. And so you bring a person like that, and she was in her sixties at the time, and I always try to remind myself of this, I feel like I'm an old man at age 60. Hannah Clapp was in her early sixties, and for the next several years with this University here on campus, she made it her purpose that this University would find its purpose in goodness and in a clear delineation of what this University was about.
John Trent: And that's the other key part here too, is that the very beginning, President Leroy Brown, who came here from Ohio, he's a Civil War veteran. Part of the problem with the university early on was it was kind of a glorified 13th grade. And President Brown came up with the idea of, well, he didn't use these terms, but why don't you follow a certain academic track? You can study mining, you can study business, you can study mining engineering, you can study the arts. So suddenly this University, which had been kind of a glorified 13th grade, becomes a real University because of these two people. So throughout the process, I kept discovering really worthy individuals like those two in particular and started to weave their stories into the story of the University. And then you realize that's why the University has become successful. We have a great mission, but we've had better people who have brought that mission to life throughout our history who've believed in it, like Hannah Clapp did. And that's kind of the crux of the book, I would say.
Brian Sandoval: And one other thing, I mean, you got to think about the landscape in Reno at the time. If you look at the historical photos, when we talk about the University, people envision what we have now. And you look back to 1885 and you look at Morrill Hall, it's a single building surrounded by Sagebrush. And Reno was probably a population of,
John Trent: 3,500.
Brian Sandoval Yeah, 3,500 people. So talk about that a little bit.
John Trent: I think why the University became so central to the success of Reno, because really at that point, the state government is centered in Carson City, and that's where a lot of the action is happening. Virginia City has had its moment with the mines. Reno’s time is still to come because at this point the University has purchased 10 acres with an option for another 10 acres up on a hill overlooking a community of 3,500 people with five churches and with various ranches and farms. And not a lot of the railroad is running through it, but there's not a lot of major industry. And this sort of, Richard Florida's used this term and I'm going to use it in a different way. There's a need for a creative class to come into the community. And I think that's what the University sort provides is as the community grows, there are professors who come to this campus to work here, and they're thinking, I'm just going to come here in this little backwater community and I'm going to go away in a couple of years.
John Trent: And a great example is a guy by the name of Fred Hillman, who's one of the early faculty members along with Hannah Clapp and Leroy Brown. He’s a botanist and he's from Michigan, and he's just going to stay here for a couple of years and then move on. He finds out that he loves, shocker, he loves Northern Nevada. He loves getting out and studying the flora and fauna of this area. And he writes a book about it and he goes out and he shares the book with the community. And not only that, apparently, according to Hannah Clapp, anyway, he had a great voice and he'd go out and he'd sing and he'd become part of the social fabric of the community. And so that's what we find is as the community grows, the campus grows and the people of the two become intertwined. And we see this today, faculty come here, they don't know if they're going to stay here, and they end up staying 20, 30, 40 years.
John Trent: And that early on is one of the themes of the University and its value to what it brought to this community. And then you have college graduates, which start to appear 1891. We have our first graduating class of three people. It's a huge event. They have it in McKissick Opera House downtown. People come out, they celebrate these three young graduates of the University. It's the first, well, now it's gone from three to, what is it, 5,000 a year. So that was the other thing that we were producing is these graduates who also then become part of the fabric of the community.
Brian Sandoval: No, it's phenomenal. And I think we're around 125,000 total that really have made an incredible impact through the history of the state and for decades to come. So let's fast forward a little bit. The wolf pack football teams of the late 1940s were important in how they helped beat back segregation in the South. What happened and why were those teams so worthy of our respect?
John Trent: Yeah, I appreciate you bringing that up because I think that this is a real central point of our history. So, to go back a little bit, we were very fortunate in the late 1930s and into early 1940s, Marion Motley, who was a future NFL Hall of Famer, played here. And he was African-American from Ohio. Marion Motley kind of blazed a trail of other African-American athletes who would come onto our campus. And so what happened in 1946, we had a very good football team, and we were supposedly going to travel to Mississippi State to play Mississippi State. Mississippi State sent some veiled threats to our campus that African-American athletes were not allowed to participate in sports in their state. At that point, America was a segregated society unfortunately. The football team decided no. At the time, they had a young man by the name of Horace Gillom and another young man named Bill Bass.
John Trent: Horace Gillom had been a decorated World War II veteran, he had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Bill Bass later would go on to play in the Canadian Football League and became one of the great sportsmen of Canadian football. They had these two young men on their team who were their teammates, who were African-American. And the team said, no, we're not going to go play. So the game was canceled, cost the University $3,000, which at that time was a lot of money, but it didn't matter. It was a matter of principle, if the whole team couldn't go play and the team would not travel. So that happened in ’46 and then in ’48, probably an even more important moment, we have a nationally ranked football team that was headed to the Sugar Bowl that season, and it had a late season loss, but it was one of the best teams in the country.
John Trent: We had a game scheduled to play at Tulsa University in Oklahoma. And again, African-American athletes were not allowed to participate in collegiate sports in that state. And again, there were some veiled threats to the campus. It was up to the University what to do. The team went, Alva Tabor was a backup quarterback who was African-American, Sherman Howard, who later played in the NFL, was a star running back. The team went and played the game. And there was no doubt about that either. There had been, people wondered, well, maybe they would leave Sherman Howard and Alva Tabor behind. They didn’t, they went and played the game. Years and years later, a name you'll know, President Sandoval, a former regent named Bill “Wildcat” Morris, who was on that team. He told me, Sherman Howard and Alva Tabor were our brothers. They were our classmates. We lived with them.
John Trent: They were our friends. We would've played, pardon my language here, we would've played the game in a goddamn parking lot because of who they were. So they go to Tulsa, they win the game, 65 to 14 Alva Tabor throws a touchdown pass, and it's the first time that a team from a non segregated part of the country had gone into a state where segregation was still very much a part, and we made history that day. So those teams showed that early on, and I mean, the segregated aspect of our country's history is a real stain, obviously. But, I think there were moments where the right thing was done and our University was a part of that. And I think that's something that people should be very, very proud of. I know years and years later, talking Sherman Howard, that was one of the things he was the most proud of, was the fact that they'd gone to that game, they'd won that game, and they'd proven a point.
Brian Sandoval: No, an incredible history. And what I like to say is they were practicing the Wolf Pack Way decades before. So, let's fast forward again, and if you can briefly talk about some of the important figures on our campus following World War II and into the sixties.
John Trent: Sure. Following World War II, the GI Bill obviously played a huge role in getting, this enrollment figure will blow you away, but the GI Bill created a groundswell of enrollment on our campus. We reached a record 1,861 students in 1947, and that was massive. The campus couldn't handle it. We were bursting at the seams. There was no lab space. There were students were sleeping in the old gym on cots. So that created a crush. The University had to grow to meet that demand. And so over the next couple of decades into the fifties and sixties, we had a couple of, more than a couple, some really notable faculty members, Alan and Trixie Gardner, for example, in the 1960s, they did American Sign Language work with Washoe the Chimp, and they earned national and international renown for that work. There was also at that time, a couple of English professors on our campus, Robert Gorrell and Charlton Laird, who wrote something called the Modern English Handbook.
John Trent: I can still remember that that was still in circulation in the 1980s. It was the bestselling grammar handbook that was used in college classrooms throughout the country for more than a couple of decades. We had Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who was the famed novelist, who was the writer in residence on our campus. He wrote “The Oxbow Incident”, which was probably one of the greatest western novels ever written. We had Robert Laxalt, who’s, his story about Nevada, and his father, his Basque sheep herder father, “Sweet Promised Land”, which is still a classic book. Robert Laxalt was on our campus doing things. So there was a number of people who kept the drumbeat going, who showed that this was a place where things were happening and the world was starting to take notice.
Brian Sandoval: So we are getting close on time, but this has just been fascinating. I wish we had two hours because we could talk, and I know our listeners are really enjoying this, but we've talked about this privately and publicly, the silver thread that connects us all. So these are themes and purposes and people that connect our University from what we've talked about, the 1880s all the way into the present. So what lessons can today's University learn from its history?
John Trent: It's a really great question. I think what we can learn is, again, we've been so lucky to have really, really great people. You look throughout our history, President Joe Crowley, for example, was a person who was president here for 23 years. And he, in a lot of ways, modernized and reminded us of our land-grant mission. There are people from our past who remind us of our purposes that we might forget in today's technologically driven sort of era that we're in in higher education. And that's all great. But it's oftentimes when we look back and realize the challenges that people had to overcome and they did it in the most sort of inspiring and energetic way. And I think that's something that still permeates our campus today. We're a campus that can always do more and asks more of itself and always does that. And that, I think speaks to the great students, faculty and staff that we have on campus today.
John Trent: But I have to feel like they sense a little bit of what came before them and how there was a firmament established here where people realized that they were doing things for the greater good, that it was going to benefit the community, it was going to benefit the state and the world. And I think too, and you're a proponent of this, and I totally agree with this, I think anybody who comes on this campus, we all have a dream. And this is a place where our dreams come true. And I think that's one of the real themes of this University's success. I mean, when it failed out in Elko or was close to failing, you had to keep dreaming. You had to keep looking to that next horizon. And again, when we came here to Reno in Morrill Hall in one building with a bunch of faculty in there wondering what the future would hold, they have to keep looking to that next horizon.
John Trent: That's not only the University to look to the next horizon, that’s Nevada. That's what really makes this state such an incredible place. And I think we encapsulate that in a beautiful way. I've always thought that this is the best idea that the state of Nevada could have ever come up with. And it's proven every day by the dedication and loyalty that the people show, the care they show for one another. And the fact that we know that tomorrow is going to be even better than today. There's an optimism, I think, about this institution that is always so when you look back, you see that and you see that being kind of paid forward in what we do today.
Brian Sandoval: Well, thank you, John. That was beautiful, and I really enjoyed our conversation, and unfortunately that is all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers. Again, thank you for joining us, John. That was wonderful. And we're very much looking forward to “The University of Nevada, Reno, 1874 to 2024, 150 years of Inspiring Excellence” publishing soon with you as the author. So, ladies and gentlemen, join us next time for another episode of Sagebrushers as we continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval and go Pack.