From efforts at prison reform to supporting boxing matches, one Nevada governor left a lot to talk about after his time in office:
You can name a lot of important Nevada families who have helped shape the state. Today, we want to talk about one of them. Recently, George Dickerson celebrated his ninetieth birthday. And his family is truly part of the fabric of Nevada life.
In 1908, Governor John Sparks died. His lieutenant governor became acting governor. Denver Dickerson was only 36. He would be, by far, the youngest chief executive in Nevada’s history. He had been mining in Idaho and decided to return to California. He stopped in Cherry Creek, Nevada, and fell in love with a local teacher, Una Reilly, who came from the mining town of Hamilton. He bought an Ely newspaper and went into politics. He served as White Pine County clerk and then recorder. In 1906, the Democrat was elected lieutenant governor. The Dickersons became the first family to live in the governor’s mansion in Carson City. Their daughter June is the only child ever born in that building.
Dickerson governed the state in the heart of the progressive era. He shared the political ideology of the time. He advocated new regulatory commissions and agencies. Some leading Nevadans weren’t thrilled with that. He backed reforms for prisons and mental hospitals. He also supported holding boxing matches in the state at a time when some opposed them as immoral, and even sparred a bit with Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries before their historic fight in 1910.
But Dickerson’s tenure would be brief. In 1910, he sought a term of his own. He faced Republican Tasker Oddie, who had been involved in the beginning of the Tonopah-Goldfield boom. He beat Dickerson. But Dickerson later became state prison warden while Oddie was governor, and kept the job for several years. He became federal superintendent of prisons, then returned to the state prison post in Nevada. He oversaw the first execution in America by gas chamber, then considered a more humane approach to the death penalty than firing squad. But Dickerson died at age fifty-three in 1925, leaving his wife and eight children.
Una Dickerson became a law librarian in Reno. Her children went on to some remarkable achievements in their own right. Harvey became a three-term attorney general of Nevada and a candidate for governor. He was a Pat McCarran supporter and at the center of things in the state Democratic party for decades. Denver was assembly speaker, held a federal diplomatic post, and became a newspaperman. As an editor and a political commentator whose column was called Salmagundi, he stirred things up. George, the youngest child, has had a distinguished career. He was elected Clark County district attorney in 1954 after winning a primary against a fine candidate named Oscar Bryan … my father. He went on to chair the state Gaming Commission. And just to show what a small world it is … before becoming district attorney, George had been a deputy district attorney along with John Mowbray to Roger D. Foley. Later, U.S. District Judge Foley had a couple of law clerks … John Mowbray, Junior, and Robert Dickerson, George and his wife Doree’s son. Their daughter Diane was involved in a major local advertising agency and with the chamber of commerce.
All of which proves that when you talk about Nevada families, the Dickersons have more than a century of evidence for their importance.
Our essays are written by Michael Green, professor at the College of Southern Nevada. Nevada Yesterdays is funded by the Nevada Humanities and dedicated to the memory of Frank Wright.
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