Tribute For Felicia Campbell, Professor Who Studied Gambling and Pop Culture, Dies at 89

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

When Felicia Campbell first saw what would become the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s campus back in 1962, she said, “My God, it’s a gas station.”

The campus was just five small buildings plunked down in the desert. The de facto faculty lounge was the bar at the Tropicana hotel and casino, a front-row seat to the burgeoning gambling scene there.

A young doctoral student in English from Wisconsin and a former Marine, she had been hired as an English instructor, but she became fascinated by the gamblers, particularly the older ones. Why did they gamble, she wondered, and what did they gain from it, when they did not expect to win in any significant way?

As she learned, community, a zest for life and a boost in self-esteem is what they gained. One gambler, retired and lonely, reported that the slot machines made her feel seen.

Ms. Campbell’s observations became the grist for her dissertation on the positive effects of gambling, in which she noted that the gambling impulse is the same inclination toward risk that propels civilization forward, to laboratory discoveries and the moon. Her elderly gamblers, as she wrote in the Futurist in 1976, were “a gallant breed who, far from wasting their meager resources gambling, are making a choice for life itself.”

Ms. Campbell died on July 27 at a hospital in Las Vegas. She was 89 and still teaching, the longest serving professor at the university. The cause was complications of Covid-19, her daughter, Tracy Tuttle, said.

Ms. Campbell’s courses were eclectic. She taught chaos theory and detective novels; science fiction; Asian and African-American literature, and pop culture. “She is so unconservative she functions very much like an open window,” Charles Adams, a colleague in the English department, was quoted as saying in a 2016 university profile. “In many ways, she permitted fresh air to flow through the university.”

Ms. Campbell was born on April 18, 1931, in Cuba City, Wis. Her parents, Frank Churchill Florine, a pharmacist, and Irene (Bower) Florine ran Florine and Son’s Drugstore and Pharmacy, where their daughter worked as a soda jerk. After earning undergraduate and masters degrees in English at the University of Wisconsin, she joined the Marines because, she said later, she wanted to see if she could handle it.

Ms. Campbell left after six months with an honorable discharge, not because she wasn’t up to the task but because she was irritated by her unit’s inefficiencies, as she told her daughter. After she boarded the train on her way home, she threw her Marine’s duffel bag out of the window.

Ms. Campbell was the founder and executive director of the Far West Popular and American Culture Association, and the organizer of its conference, held every year in Las Vegas, with programs that might include a symposium on Frank Zappa or the armadillo cult of Texas (featuring live armadillos); a night devoted to Tarzan (featuring an appearance by Johnny Weissmuller); or a session on the semiotics of bumper stickers.

Her marriage to Ritzman Campbell, a craps and poker dealer who had been a student, and to whom she was married for about a decade, Ms. Tuttle said, ended in divorce when Ms. Tuttle was 5 and her brothers 8 and 10.

Fiercely independent, she taught her only daughter to say, when asked her name, “I am Tracy and I am my own little person.”

In addition to Ms. Tuttle, Ms. Campbell is survived by six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her son Jedediah Campbell died in 2017; her son Adam Whitney Campbell, died on Sept. 5.

Ms. Campbell was a risk taker herself, though not at the gaming tables. When she discovered she and her female colleagues at the university were paid less than the men, she sued for back pay. When the case was settled nearly 10 years later, she used some of the money to finance a 300-mile trek through the Himalayas, even though she’d never camped before and at 52, wasn’t sure she would survive.

By the end she had a life-affirming and life-altering experience, just like her elderly gamblers. Ms. Campbell had risked her own neck, as she told a local newspaper after the trip, to test her theories.

“The bottom line was that risk-taking could be a preservative impulse,” she said, “breaking the monotony, allowing normal people to control their own destiny, to be intensely alive for a moment.”

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