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July 23, 2014

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The great cannon caper of 1965

It was a simple mission really: steal a cannon and transport it from Reno to Las Vegas.

The operation was well-orchestrated and proceeded as planned, until Mr. Murphy proved his law was valid.

It started in November 1965 at a chapter meeting of the Intercollegiate Knights honorary service fraternity at Nevada Southern University. The topic under discussion was how we could help NSU gain publicity in the struggle for equal representation with the evil northern campus, the University of Nevada.

The University of Nevada was established in 1874 in Elko and relocated to Reno in 1885. This institution had eight decades of building, demolition, rebuilding, landscaping and developing an identity; a medical school was being planned. A satellite campus was established in Las Vegas in 1955 (although the first classes were not held until 1957). The name adopted for the satellite was Nevada Southern University since the school was in the southern part of the state. To reinforce the southern theme as well the battle for independence from the north, the Rebel was adopted as the mascot. In the mid-1960s we referred to NSU as “Tumbleweed Tech” to reflect the condition of the campus–asphalt parking and concrete sidewalks only in front of the admin building, a small patch of grass, and trees that had grown to the dizzying height of shrubs.

George “Chip” Mills, one of the Intercollegiate Knights brothers, had attended the Reno campus for a year or two before transferring to NSU; Tom Hribar made frequent trips to Reno in his duties as student body president. It was probably George or Tom who made the suggestion: Reno had two World War I cannons and we had none; why not adopt one as our own to prove we were equal to the older school? Both cannons were prominently displayed along the main street of the campus.

A motion was quickly made, seconded and approved.

Two of our brothers, Tom Hribar and Don Malone, took over planning of the raid. Chip and his father flew to Reno on a reconnaissance mission. They returned with numerous photographs, dimensions and weight of the cannon, the size of the chain that secured the cannon to a concrete slab, a map of the campus, and — amazingly — the times and routes when security made its nocturnal rounds through campus.

The plan was for two brothers to climb exterior fire escapes of nearby buildings to act as sentries from the rooftops. Another would climb a tree near the cannon. Three would walk to the cannon with bolt cutters, confirm with the lookouts that it was clear, then remove the chain. The remaining two would then enter the scene in a car towing the trailer. The five on the ground would push the cannon onto the trailer, hide it under boxes and cover it with tarps. In case of disaster we had a rally point to reorganize and everyone carried enough money for a plane ticket and a few meals.

Ben Knowles reserved a vehicle trailer to haul behind his big Chrysler. The rest of us (Bill Cunningham, Chuck Crawford, Chuck Cooley and myself) were kept busy with grunt work collecting walkie talkies, empty cardboard boxes, tarps, a blowtorch bolt to cut the chain and various odds and ends. The cannon was about 150 feet from the nearest asphalt and to keep the iron wheels from digging ruts in the grass Ben and Bill designed and built custom dollies for the move across the lawn.

A meeting of student body leaders and Gov. Grant Sawyer to discuss the status of NSU, which was unrelated to our mission, was held on the NSU campus on Dec. 16, 1965. Shortly after the meeting adjourned we left Las Vegas in two vehicles for the 450-mile, seven-hour drive to Reno, nearly all on two-lane state highways. Chip, the two Chucks and I made the drive in an unheated VW Bug. Tom, Ben, Don, and Bill followed a few hours later in Ben’s car. After a reconnaissance of the campus, concentrating on the cannon and surrounding buildings, we had a final mission briefing at a laundromat across from campus.

Deep into the night we finally attacked. Don and I climbed fire escapes and Tom climbed a tree near the cannon. Chip and the two Chucks cut the chains. Ben and Bill arrived and parked with the rear of the trailer as near the cannon as possible. The fraternity brothers lifted the cannon onto the dollies and pushed the 1,200-pound cannon about 100 feet toward the trailer.

That’s when Murphy’s Law hit. This time, “Murphy” was one of the bored security detail who decided to make an extra pass around campus. He appeared from a side street and was on top of the ground crew in seconds, our urgent radio messages being too late.

All six on the ground were detained by campus security. Don and I watched the event unfold from our posts above the action, waited until the scene was clear, and made our way down the stairs. We walked to a nearby restaurant and drank coffee for a few hours waiting to see if anyone was released. Once it was apparent that it was just the two of us, we rented a motel room, walked to the airport the following morning, and bought tickets for the first flight home.

Later in the morning the UNR Dean of Students, Dr. Sam Basta, told the security people to release the delinquents but to hold their ID cards. No charges were filed and the “vandals” were released.

It soon came to light that Sen. Alan Bible, along with some cronies (probably the rest of his fraternity), had stolen the same cannon when they were attending UNR and pushed it down Virginia Street, Reno’s main drag. They were the reason the cannon was chained down.

Although there was initial talk of expelling the six delinquents, that quickly passed. It helped that a good portion of NSU’s student leadership was involved and that Ben was Gov. Sawyer’s Las Vegas secretary. Not much later the two deans agreed that the failed mission was appropriate and admirable since nothing was harmed except a chain that could easily be repaired with a welding torch. It was a college stunt, carried out with noble intent with no destruction or vandalism. They agreed to acknowledge the plight of NSU (and honor us) with a traveling trophy to be held by the winner of the annual basketball game.

Instead of a cannon, UNR donated a large brass bell that had been used in Morrill Hall, the oldest building at the Reno campus. The trophy was first presented after the Homecoming Game on Jan. 10, 1966. The Morrill Hall Bell Trophy was used for several years until it was apparently replaced by the Fremont Cannon Trophy awarded to the winner of the annual football game.

Not many years after this event, NSU was endowed with funds to begin an expansion program and the school was renamed University of Nevada Las Vegas. Buildings and landscaping were added and real growth kicked off. Did our attempted caper help with the added funding? We like to think so.

It should be noted that this was almost a student-body-approved operation since the pirates included the president of the student body (Tom Hribar), the senior class president (Chip Mills), three senators (Ben Knowles, senior; Don Malone, junior, and Bill Cunningham, sophomore), and the editor of the NSU newspaper the Rebel Yell (Chuck Crawford). I was the campus news photographer and staff photographer for the Rebel Yell.

J. Michael Green’s formative years were spent in California and Las Vegas. He has held many titles, but his favorites are husband, father, grandfather and sergeant of Recon Marines.

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