By Joey Lovato and Madeline Purdue
Former University of Nevada, Reno, president, Joe Crowley, used to say “Just call me Joe” as he walked around and met new faces on campus. It’s a simple phrase, but it would come to define a complex and influential man.
On Tuesday, Nov. 28, Crowley died after being hospitalized at Saint Mary’s Hospital with pneumonia for several weeks. He was 84.
Crowley is remembered as UNR’s longest serving president — serving from 1978 to 2000 — and was also the president of the NCAA from 1993 to 1995. He oversaw the implementation of many projects and changes that define UNR today.
He “played a key role in establishing the journalism school” according to an Instagram post from the Reynolds School of Journalism, which said it is “a little known piece of Crowley’s legacy”.
“In so doing, Joe was relatively rare among his presidential peers at American universities by putting journalism on an equal footing in the academic world through the establishment of a new independent school,” wrote Reynolds School Professor Emeritus and former Nevada Sagebrush editor Warren Lerude for the Reno Gazette-Journal.
A sign reading, “Joe, Friend, Thanks for everything. EVERYTHING! Rest In Peace.” was put on his office door on Wednesday, and other notes were added after the sign.
Crowley is also credited with expanding the campus of UNR, and laying the groundwork for its medical school — the first of its kind in the state.
Even after he stepped down as president in 2000, Crowley was still deeply involved with the university. He taught history from 2001 to 2003, and after that was part time faculty for many more years. His modest office could be found on the first floor of The Reynolds School of Journalism.
In 2003, Crowley served as interim president of San Jose State University for a year, and in 2006 returned to Reno to serve as interim president. A year later, the new student union was christened “The Joe.”
The Joe Crowley Student Union recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary—celebrating the staple of the university named after the beloved leader and respected professor of UNR.
Before his presidency, Crowley started his UNR career on a one-semester contract to teach political science in 1966, and was given a full-time contract the next year. In 1976, Crowley became the chair of the department of political science. In 1978, he was appointed as acting president of the university, and just 13 months later, he was appointed as the full-time president of the university.
“Joe will be remembered as one of the finest presidents in the history of our University,” said current UNR president Marc Johnson in a statement to students and staff. “He will be spoken about in the same breath as some of our most influential figures in the history of Nevada … [he] created a stronger sense of statewide respect for our institution. Moving throughout his historic 23-year tenure as our leader, Joe served with distinction, skill and integrity. He built the University into what it is today. He did so with a rare sense of personal grace that endeared him to an entire generation of students, faculty and staff at the University, and made him a beloved figure in our community and our state.”
Crowley had an admiration for the number 13, as he was the 13th president of the university after serving for 13 months as the appointed president, in his 13th year at the university.
“There’s that number again: 13 … It’s my lucky number, and I have bored people to tears writing and talking about it,” Crowley wrote in his memoir.
Crowley’s life was deeply intertwined with the university, yet he never came off as unapproachable or inaccessible.
“He will listen you to death,” James Richardson, a longtime university sociology professor told Nevada Today. “He’s disarmingly quick at grasping things. He doesn’t mind admitting he doesn’t know everything. He makes people feel at home. He doesn’t speak down to them. It seems trite to say this, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He woke up one day, he was president, and that was it.”
Crowley was born in Oelwein, Iowa in 1933. He received a political science degree from the University of Iowa in 1959, and in 1963 he would receive his masters in social science from Fresno State University. In 1967 — a year after he began teaching at the university — he received his doctorate in political science from the University of Washington.
His doctorate of political science at the University of Washington focused on African politics and his dissertation was on Ghana’s independence, as well as the newly established governments in Kenya, Rhodesia and Uganda.
Crowley became the George McGovern delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972 while working at the university, and in 2001 was the coordinator for the Nevada System of Higher Education’s legislative activities.
Since his arrival in 1966, Crowley had been involved in politics in one way or another. His 23-year tenure is a testament to just how committed he was to the politics driving higher education in Nevada. Crowley taught and inspired young minds before becoming president, including Nevada’s current governor Brian Sandoval.
“I was fortunate to consider him a mentor and will always remember his quiet dignity and strength of character,” said Governor Sandoval in a statement. “He presided over the University with poise, class, and integrity and I am proud to have been one of the countless students served by this remarkable man. I will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to be a student in his political science class.”
Crowley is survived by his wife Joy, and their four children and seven grandchildren. A memorial in his honor is set up on the first floor of the Joe Crowley Student Union.
Joey Lovato and Madeline Purdue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.