Nuestra Historia: 1965-1975: An era of great change in Las Vegas

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The tale of two cities culminates with consolidation in 1970 and the stirring election of that year. However, before proceeding to that conclusion, it is necessary for readers to understand that the municipal merger was only one of several momentous events which overtook Las Vegas at the same time — a period that was nothing less than transformational.

A historical era can be many years or a short time, and is not so much determined by its duration, as by its significance.

As the twin cities neared consolidation in 1970, Las Vegas was in the throes of great change, and the decennium between 1965 and 1975 ranks among the most important epochs in our town’s history.

For reasons we may never understand, it was during this brief period that a confluence of people and events produced a whirlwind of change not since experienced in Las Vegas, “when the stubborn past gave way to the hopeful future,” as noted by the Optic’s Lois Beck in 1968. Not only was consolidation achieved in 1970, but great upheaval occurred the same year at Highlands University — and together, both events resulted in the demise of long-entrenched barriers and festering demarcations.

As we come to the conclusion of the tale of two cities, we will recount the fears which many harbored when consolidation became a reality, and the unlikely alliances that formed during the volatile atmosphere of the first municipal election in 1970. Then we will begin a series about Highlands University, recounting its history and the tumultuous times which overtook the university in the early 1970s, including the student protests and demonstrations of that time, and the court battles and political struggles which consumed the university and the entire Las Vegas community.

Today’s column is a preface to those stories, a backdrop to emphasize that the transformational events of that time occurred almost in tandem. It was a time of great change, and we may never fully understand how it began, or whether any particular catalyst ignited the heady times of that era. As with most social and political change, no defining moment or single individual was responsible — it was a potpourri of human strengths and frailties, a combination of both natural and deliberate events, that produced the remarkable Las Vegas epoch of 1965 to 1975.

It is not at all coincidental that the era began with the death of District Judge Luis E. Armijo is 1965. Armijo had been both district judge and political boss since 1924, and was the last important link to the remote past, to the social mores and political strata which defined Las Vegas since its earliest days. As much a product as a cause of the old-order which pervaded Las Vegas through the 1960s, it is likely that but for Judge Armijo’s passing, events may not have unfolded as they did, as will be explained later.

While it was the absence of Judge Armijo that may have made it easier to usher in the tumultuous changes which began in 1965, it was the presence of Thomas C. Donnelly which had the same effect at Highlands University. A native of West Virginia, Donnelly had been president of Highlands since 1952, still the longest tenure in the university’s history. When Donnelly announced his retirement in 1970, the reverberations which ensued shook the very core of the Las Vegas community. Court writs and injunctions followed, and the university was engulfed by student protests and demonstrations, including the occupation and take-over of Rodger’s Hall, the school’s administration building.

Once again, the era begs the age-old question whether it is the times that make the man, or the man who defines the times. As for consolidation, we may always wonder whether the merger of East and West Las Vegas was inevitable, or whether it was the incessant and unyielding determination of Republican state senator Junio Lopez and his Alpha News, beginning in 1967, which made the merger inescapable.

The same may be said of the events which overtook Highlands University in the early 1970s. Historians and scholars may forever ponder whether that transformation was also inevitable, or whether the bellicose attacks on the “Donnelly regime” by both Junio Lopez and District Attorney and Democratic political boss Tiny Martinez, and their fledgling newspapers, ignited and coalesced an entire community, much like La Voz del Pueblo spurred the populist revolt of 1890, as recounted in an earlier Nuestra Historia series.

When consolidation actually became a reality, and when the barriers finally came down at Highlands, history is again perplexed by the man or the times axiom, as other more temperate and conciliatory voices emerged to deal with the delicate task of implementing the momentous changes which had so rapidly occurred — and Las Vegas turned to the restraint and moderation of both Chief Gonzales as its first mayor, and Frank Angel as the first Hispanic president of Highlands University.

As Nuestra Historia continues, we will recount this fascinating era.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.