Her Life

Obituary for Felicia Florine Campbell

Obituary for Felicia Florine Campbell, Ph.D.
April 18, 1931 – July 27, 2020
Written by H. Peter Steeves

When seen from a certain angle, Felicia Campbell did everything wrong in life. She didn’t obey. She bit the hand that fed her. She refused to do what everyone else was doing. She took the craziest job offer she received, wouldn’t conform to the traditions at her workplace when she got there, and wouldn’t leave when told it was appropriate more than five decades later. She laughed at the idea of being directed by, or bound in life to, a man. She wouldn’t keep quiet. She wouldn’t keep still. She liked wild, wide-open spaces…and wolves. She cared about things other people wouldn’t care about until years later. She acted instead of just talking about acting. She even “drank wrong”—taking her martinis the way that 007 did: frequently and made with vodka instead of gin.

Born during the Great Depression in Cuba City, Wisconsin to an educated but working class family, young Felicia was already engaged in mostly wrong behavior for a girl: she loved to read. Eventually, this led her to college to study English. Still, instead of getting a Bachelor of Arts for her degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Felicia went for a B.S. because she loved science, too, and wanted to take the science classes usually reserved for men. She earned her Bachelor of Science—in English—in 1954. It was then expected that she might go into teaching middle or high school, a fair aspiration for a woman of her Midwestern generation, but instead, Felicia had recently learned that the U.S. Marine Corps had never graduated a woman as an officer. This seemed wrong. Plus, she wanted a challenge and an adventure. So she joined the Marines. Once in the program she didn’t do what she was told to do, or willingly take what she was told to take, when she thought it was inappropriate—a “wrong” trait that tends not to go over well in the Corps. For months she tried to change the culture from within, especially the way the women were being treated. She finally decided that the system couldn’t be changed internally, so she let them know. They told her she could leave but it was a big mistake. She told them she simply had had enough, and she was going to change the culture at large so that such changes would eventually find their way into every corner of society, including the armed services. She promised herself to be semper fidelis—to a higher set of standards and morality.

 Back in school, she earned her Masters, finished all of the coursework for her Ph.D., and—with everyone telling her it was the wrong thing to do—decided to teach at a college someplace at “the ends of the Earth” instead of immediately writing her dissertation. She narrowed down the “ends” to Nigeria (east) or Las Vegas (west). She soon accepted the Vegas job site-unseen, having never been to a desert, and arrived to town in 1962 thinking that she had agreed to work at a gas station. UNLV was, at the time, not yet UNLV. It was “Nevada Southern”—just a few small buildings in the middle of nowhere. Felicia threw herself into the project of making the little school the best it could be.

As UNLV grew, Felicia did what she was not supposed to do and went back to school— while still teaching—to finish her dissertation, this time at the United States International University, San Diego. She had become interested in the academic study of gambling, which no one else was really doing and which she was told was the wrong topic to pursue for her research. She wrote her dissertation on it anyway. Her conclusion, which was the wrong conclusion according to almost all academics, was that there was something that could be good and healthy about gambling, taking it to be another form of risk-taking that might have beneficial personal and social outcomes. Felicia married a craps dealer, had three children, and continued on with her publishing, teaching, and rabble-rousing.

In 1973 she was told that it was nice that she had her Ph.D. now and had decided to stay working, but she shouldn’t really talk about that gambling research ever again. Felicia listened, and then did the opposite, helping to found “gaming and gambling studies” as a legitimate academic field. Around the same time, she began designing and teaching all of the wrong courses: courses on environmentalism in literature (though no one had even heard of global warming at the time), courses that focused on Asian culture and other overlooked areas of study in the U.S. She taught the university’s first class on black literature, its first class on women’s literature. Then she did one of the wrongest things one can do in academia (even more wrong for an English teacher than the word “wrongest”): she questioned the canon in general and thus what everyone else was teaching and publishing. She placed science fiction, mysteries, and detective novels alongside the classics. She claimed she loved opera and popular music, and both deserved serious contemplation. She claimed that television could be on a level of cultural importance similar to cinema. She insisted that the enforced boundary between high- and low culture was a bourgeois construction meant to keep marginalized communities begging at the door. A modern Socrates, she said we were all living an unexamined life if we refused to think carefully and critically about everyday culture. She was told to cool it—or she could expect to be served hemlock. So she put her head down and concentrated on it even more, helping to create and shape—and in the process, becoming one of the central voices within—the new realm of Popular Culture Studies.

 Felicia ended up founding and directing the Far West Popular Culture Association (FWPCA) and served as president for the national Popular Culture Association as well. She was also the founder, and remained until her passing as the editor, of the influential journal Popular Culture Review. The FWPCA this year celebrated its thirty-second anniversary with Felicia at the helm. Seven years ago, at the twenty-fifth anniversary, conference-goers held a special celebration of Felicia and all of her wrong choices, crowning her as “The Queen of Pop Culture”—a horribly wrong thing to do in a democracy, though nothing could be more correct than that mantle and title, for not only had she carved out the space for such interests to be taken seriously in academia, the Queen had truly created a niche within the academy where the local culture could be a model for the culture at large. Unlike many other academic conferences, the Far West meeting has historically never been driven by hostility, aggression, or ego. Attendees might not always agree when they speak to each other, but it is truly wondrous that a conference space could be such a constructive place to have those agreements and disagreements, a space that is based on community, collaboration, and getting at the truth of the matter together rather than showing off or belittling others. Such a culture and ethos were not accidents. They were created at the top. The Queen of Pop Culture Felicia was and always will be.

Meanwhile, back on campus: somewhere along the line—decades ago—Felicia discovered that she and other women at her university had been paid and promoted less than their male counterparts. As everyone knows, the right thing to do when dissatisfied at work is silently grumble about it and slowly grow bitter. Felicia sued and was joyful. Instead of giving in to acceptable cynicism, she stayed on and kept fighting. Her work was recognized nationally, and she soon founded the first chapter of the National Organization for Women in Las Vegas. Accustomed to a life of wrong, Felicia was emboldened to keep calling out the shortcomings of society and especially the academy—a lone voice in the latter, often, shouting that too many emperors in the enclosed circles of academia not only were not wearing clothes but perhaps had never owned any. She led the charge in the 1970's arguing that tenure is a right and not a privilege in order to have a healthy university with a free exchange of ideas. She continued arguing that as long as one person is treated unfairly in her community, no one could truly prosper.

Back in 2012, Felicia was recognized for fifty years of service to UNLV—a record setting achievement—and, because fifty was such a high, nice, round number, the mayor of Las Vegas declared November 9, 2012 to be “Felicia Campbell Day.” Now would she finally retire, she was asked? Felicia ignored the question, designed new classes mixing the scientific discipline of chaos theory with the literary tradition of detective novels, wrote and published more short stories, was pleased that her teaching evaluations continued to be over-the-top positive, and settled more firmly into the chair in her office. This year marked her fifty-eighth at UNLV.

Felicia would often say that part of what led to her faith in her own abilities in the second half of her life happened back in 1984 when she partially settled her discrimination lawsuit against the university. At the time, Felicia was told that the right thing to do with the small amount of settlement money was to put it into savings or perhaps splurge a little on some materialistic upgrade to her life. Looking off into the horizon in the wrong direction yet again, Felicia—who had never once been hiking or camping, and, in her own words, “never even really left the sidewalk”—instead decided to spend that summer overseas on a two-month, 300-mile hike across glaciers, working her way into Pakistan, eventually making it to K2 and the 16,000 foot base camp of the second largest mountain in the world. She was in her early-50s. The wrongness of that decision filled her with confidence that she had been on the right path in life in general. If she could accomplish that, what couldn’t she accomplish? And this brief history has only scratched the surface of those many accomplishments.

Truly, Felicia Campbell did everything wrong in life. That’s why she will always be a hero to many of us who look at the world, and those “in charge” of it, and see only madness. In a culture where the right thing to do is destroy the planet, accept injustice as ordinary, work for the money, bow down to the boss, follow the accepted traditions, accept the status quo, disappear quietly at the end, and most of all obey without questioning while you’re here—in a world where immoral people and institutions decide what is right—then the only truly right thing to do is the wrong thing.

Felicia is survived by her daughter Tracy Tuttle (also a professor), Tracy’s two children Maximilian Wolf, Sigourney Skye, granddaughter Cassandra Marie Campbell and her two sons Viktor and Logan. Additionally, she is survived by her son Adam Campbell, his three sons Cody Austin, Christian Alex and Trevor Michael, and Cody’s son Dean Mason and Christian’s daughter Violet Felicia. Also, several generations of students who have now lost a mentor and a friend and acquaintances who knew her just a little but were the better for it. Additionally, countless colleagues and friends—including those of us who attended the FWPCA every year, benefited so greatly from her hard work, admired her, loved her, tried never to take her for granted, but collectively made the gravest error of all in thinking, in hoping, that she was immortal. She was so unlike everyone else in so many ways, it wasn’t a completely unrealistic hope.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida writes that when a true friend dies, the entire world perishes for those left behind. Everything shifts, everything has new meaning, everything comes crashing down. We mourn the incomparable Felicia Campbell today. And thus, rightly, we mourn the world.

H. Peter Steeves