Ensuring Neon's Place In Nevada History

Apr 23, 2019

Like sturdy maple trees in Vermont or the sugary fried beignets of Louisiana, states have their own icons that instantly connect the symbol to its place. Nevada has neon. Some local advocates for the noble gas have been working to get its spot in the history books by making neon the state’s official element this legislative session.

The work paid off, and Governor Steve Sisolak signed the bill into law Tuesday, but the bill’s proponents are not who you might think, and KUNR’s Holly Hutchings has been following them for months.

The energy in the fifth and sixth-grade classroom of the small Carson Montessori School is pretty typical, but their current civics lesson is not. They’ve been hard at work all school year turning this bill into a full-blown law. Before the legislative session even kicked off in January, I joined the little lobbyists as their journey kicked off. The kids unwrapped their lunches and had a casual chat with Democratic Assemblywoman Sarah Peters, the sponsor of their bill and also a scientist.

Assemblywoman Sarah Peters joins the fifth and sixth-graders at Carson Montessori for lunch and a lesson on science and legislative action.
Credit Holly Hutchings

Peters is a freshman legislator, who immediately jumped at the chance to work with this class.   

“It’s funny because some people have criticized this as being a little frivolous," she explained.

But she says pushing this bill brings kids into the process, instilling in them the belief that they can evoke change.

“To buy into the system, to feel invested in the system--this is something they can carry on into their adult lives," Peters said.

Through the winter, they took to the halls of the Nevada legislature, knocking on virtually every door. Nearly forty fifth and sixth-graders, clad in their Sunday best of suits, ties and dresses, were on a mission; to gain support for a bill that’s all theirs.

Some of the students stand with Senator Julia Ratti, who pledged her support early on for the bill.
Credit Holly Hutchings

“Right now we have three-fourths of the Assembly and we’re going to the Senate," the students remarked. 

They’ve popped into offices and penciled in appointments to sell their idea to lawmakers, including Senator Pete Goicoechea.

“I’m really excited. I hope this goes well," says one of the students, "because I think he will be in support because he has a cutout of Wendover Will."

Wendover Will is a 60-foot-tall neon cowboy that greets visitors to the small town of Wendover, off I-80 near the Utah border. He's like the brother of Vegas Vic. 

Suddenly, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro crosses paths with the students. With or without their teacher, the kids pounce on this opportunity and go right into their elevator pitch. 

Student lobbyists pitch their idea for neon as the state element to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro in a run-in style appointment in the halls of the legislature.
Credit Holly Hutchings

Fifth-grader Sadie Brown has stepped up as a leader amongst her peers in the fight for AB 182.

“It's an important part of our history. It died out in other states and places, and it's like Nevada didn’t get what was happening so we just kept it. When you see the neon signs, you know, you're in Nevada.”

This bill would make the element, as in the Periodic Table of Elements, an official symbol of Nevada. The wording is simple, no frills. No money. Just one line to put the gas in the books. Yes, you may be thinking that Nevada is the Silver State, but, actually, silver is already locked in as the state’s metal.

They wanted to pass this particular bill after getting lessons on the cultural and historical importance of the vibrant element, and the signs synonymous with it, from their teacher, Will Durham. He’s a passionate advocate and leader of the Nevada Neon Project, a partner on the bill.

“There is an electricity. Neon creates that buzz, no matter what it is,” Durham said. 

When a building is being demolished in Reno and even around the state, Durham is the guy on the scene to nab its neon signs before they hit the dump. He’s amassed a vast collection in about two decades. For him, all Nevada neon tells an important story and he doesn’t cherry pick based on monetary value.

“It does mean something to most Nevadans," he said. "It's a unifier in many ways. I feel like the overall project of preserving and interpreting neon is stronger today, not just for our project but for the Neon Museum in Las Vegas and the Western Folklife Center, having the neon up there so when people hear about this bill they'll be, ‘Oh yeah! They were maybe ahead of the curve seeing that maybe this stuff does matter and is not just an outdated advertising medium.' ”

The bill is not going to solidify preservation of the state’s neon history, but it clarifies the importance of this unique, purely Nevada history.

Assemblywoman Sarah Peters reads the wording of the bill she sponsored, as students from Carson Montessori sit in the seats behind and wait for the Assembly vote.
Credit Holly Hutchings

In March, on the first spring-like day Carson had seen in weeks, hopes were high as the bill moved onto the assembly floor after sailing through committee unanimously.  

It was unanimous here, too, and later in the Senate.

Senator Scott Hammond poses with students. He showed his support early and invited some of the kids to sit with him during the Senate vote.
Credit Shane Watson

...which brings us to Governor Steve Sisolak's desk where he signed the bill Tuesday. 

Neon will officially become Nevada’s state element on July 1.