Clarence H. Mackay: The Man Behind the University of Nevada

by Carter Latimer

The Beginning of Clarence H. Mackay

 

Mackay Atheletic Field Dedication:
Clarence Mackay wearing a Class hat

John W. Mackay Statue and the Quad, with Morrill Hall in the background (ca. 1911)


 

Clarence H. Mackay was born in 1874, the same year that the University of Nevada opened. Mackay dedicated his life to bettering our university. He wanted to provide the community with access to high quality higher education. In order to understand the life of Clarence H. Mackay, it is important to look at the life of his father, John W. Mackay. John was a pioneer of the Comstock Lode and had vested interests in mining in California and Nevada. In a short time, John struck it rich. He discovered the great ore body known as the Big Bonanza in the consolidated Virginia and California mines. These two mines produced over $100,000,000 in just five short years. This money was passed down to his family. His son, Clarence, would later donate a large portion of his inheritance to the University of Nevada for various buildings and programs.

Here you can see the statue of John W. Mackay, at the north end of the Quad, which was donated by his son. You can still see this statue today walking through campus. Although it seemed as if the wealth of the Mackay family would never run out, eventually the Comstock mines were depleted. John then moved his empire to the east coast. That is where Clarence Mackay spent most of his childhood and young adult years. With the memory of his father in mind, however, Clarence eventually returned to the west. He became a successful businessman in his own right, reclaiming his family’s fame and fortune in Nevada. Between the years 1907-1936, Clarence Mackay gave the University approximately $2,000,000.

 

Gifts of the Mackay Family to the University of Nevada

Gifts of the Mackay Family
to the University of Nevada

Mackay School of Mines dedication ceremony: Clarence Mackay and Professor Young standing in front of other dignitaries (1908)
Mackay School of Mines dedication ceremony: Clarence Mackay and Professor Young standing in front
of other dignitaries (ca. 1908
)

Mackay School of Mines

 

After donating the statue of his father to the University and paying for the Quad, Clarence Mackay made a substantial financial gift in 1908 to support the Mackay School of Mines. Not only did he donate $100,000 for the building, but he also gave $6,000 per year for Mackay School of Mines salaries for 5 years. In 1925, he increased the salary donation to $18,000 per year. This was the push that the campus needed to get recognition from both the academic world and regional industrial community. Before the School of Mines opened, UNR did not have a solid academic reputation for industrial training. When the Mackay School of Mines was recognized as a top mining school, the University earned its reputation as a pioneering institution that actively pursued academic innovations.

 

“Commencement day, June 10, 1908, was the most significant commencement the university has ever known; for this was the day of the dedication of the Mackay School of Mines and the memorial statue.” (Doten, 112)

Here you can see the gathering of community members and faculty for the dedication ceremony of the Mackay School of Mines. After the School of Mines was established, the state legislature created the Nevada Bureau of Mines, a service agency for the mining industry, as a division of the Mackay School. This established a good relationship between the state and the school, which would later lead to more funding from the state.

 

Mackay Athletic Field/ Mackay Science Hall

Mackay Athletic Field, with bleachers and Training Quarters in background (ca. 1911)
Mackay Athletic Field dedication,
Clarence Mackay at the podium

 

Originally named the Evans Athletic Field, this land used to grow thick with alfalfa and had to be rented by the university. That hindered the university’s ability to develop its athletic programs. Clarence Mackay saw potential in this area of campus just as he did with the School of Mines. He noticed that the ground was already flat, which was a big issue in finding a place for an athletic field. So, feeling half the battle was already won, he bought the land for $3,000 in 1908 and donated it to the university. He supplemented this by donating a quarter mile oval cinder track, a turf football field and many more benches for seating. This way the people of the community, students, and staff could come watch the athletic events. Clarence Mackay also donated new training quarters for the athletes. He placed a two-story building on the east end of the field that was well equipped for training.

“When the field was dedicated on October 23, 1909, Mr. Mackay received a welcome which will never be forgotten by those who participated in it. (Doten, 115).

There was a new type of camaraderie among athletes and students which has only grown over the years. Although sporting events are not for everyone, a large number of students, staff, and the northern Nevada community still gather today together during football, soccer, or rugby season to watch the Wolf Pack fight for their place on the field. Once the state legislature noticed the big steps that the University was making, thanks to Clarence Mackay, they realized that state funding could be beneficial. The legislature granted funds for other resources, including a greenhouse that allowed botany students to study plants during the winter, a small library, and equipment for the physics department.

 

Mackay Science Complete
Mackay Science Construction

The last major donation that Clarence Mackay gave to the University before his death was the Mackay Science Hall. This was also his largest donation. The building was designed to house both the physics and chemistry departments, which had been underfunded and understaffed. Clarence knew that if either of the departments failed, there would be negative repercussions for both the University and ultimately his mining school. Therefore, he wanted to the two departments to be able to work together as a team to help each other with whatever they needed.

Economic Downturn

The boom years of the Roaring Twenties did not prepare people for what was to come. Although it once seemed as if the money would never run out, Clarence Mackay was not immune to the financial disaster brought about by the Great Depression. This economic downturn greatly affected Clarence’s business and personal fortune, limiting the amount of money he would be able to donate to the University. In a December 29, 1932, letter to the president of the University, Water E. Clark, he asked if the University could seek state funding to cover the $18,000 he had been donating annually for the School of Mines salaries.

 

Letter from Clarence Mackay to President Clark Letter from Clarence Mackay to President Clark Letter from Clarence Mackay to President Clark
Letters from Clarence Mackay to President Clark

The cash-strapped university replied that it was not in a position to seek salary funding for the Mackay School of Mines from the state. In response, on February 1, 1933, Clarence Mackay sent the first of two $9,000 checks to the university. This demonstrates that even when undergoing unprecedented financial problems, himself, Clarence’s unwavering support for the university drove him to continue his financial support. Clarence’s passion for mining, athletics and science had a positive effect on the University’s growth that is seen today. He brought together the student body and faculty by giving them the tools they needed to perform their jobs with the utmost precision. His donation of resources for athletic programs helped cultivate the campus community and develop school spirit. Clarence believed that access to higher education would benefit not only the northern Nevada community, but the entire state, and he was proven right. Today, the University of Nevada, Reno is recognized as a competitor in both academics and athletics. None of this would have been possible without the vision and financial support of the great Clarence Mackay.

Suggested Reading

The University of Nevada: A Centennial History, James W. Hulse, UNR Press 1974.

“Clarence Mackay University”, research essay by Carter Latimer. April 2011. University Archives.