By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)
During an assembly in December of 1923, Aggie students agreed to create a large A on a hogback west of town. The following week, they began to clear brush and move rocks on the steep hillside to form an A. The landowner, R.G. Maxwell, gave the College a 99-year lease for $1. In September of 1924, students increased the height of the A to 450 feet, with corresponding widening, then “whitewashed” it. The tradition of painting the A had begun.
In the early years, painting the A was done with buckets and brooms, according to CSU athletics historian John Hirn (B.A., ’93). There were stories of some students painting not only the A but each other. The tradition lapsed by the late 1970s, so athletic director and former stand-out Aggie athlete Thurman “Fum” McGraw (B.S., ’50) contacted his long-time friend Bill Woods (B.S., ’58) to invigorate it.
McGraw could not have chosen a better person. Woods, a retired U.S. Army colonel, Vietnam War veteran, and past president of the CSU Alumni Association Board of Directors, became the driving force behind painting the A, spearheading the tradition for several decades. With Woods’ encouragement, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity maintained the A for around 20 years. There is a story that members once added an “S” and an “E” on each side of the A for a little self-promotion; the extra letters soon were removed, however.
In the mid-2000s, the College of Agricultural Sciences wanted to be more involved, so Agricultural and Resource Economics professor Marshall Frasier took over as the “hill boss,” while Woods remained at the bottom. When the Alumni Association became responsible for CSU traditions, its staff became heavily involved as well.
Alpha Gamma Rho (AGR) now provides major technical support. During the 2019 painting, Kyle Rush, agriculture business major, was in charge. He was responsible for securing paint, sprayers, generators, extra buckets, extension cords, and everything else the painters would need. He also lined up pickup trucks to haul it to and from the base of the hill. Freshmen on the football team, “throwers” on the track team, and others helped AGR members move paint and equipment up the hill the day before painting. Rush recruited three AGR volunteers to sleep at the top that night to guard the equipment. Students who volunteered to paint were brought to the A in shifts, and AGR members taught them how to paint. When painting was completed, AGR members hauled equipment and leftover paint back down the hill and took everything to a car wash to clean it. Rush made clear there were no shenanigans in 2019; “we take our job very seriously, and we take pride in being part of this CSU tradition.”
COVID-19 disrupted this tradition, as it has so much of our lives. The University’s top priority is keeping students safe, so it cancelled painting the A. According to Rush, the AGR members were “heartbroken and argued strongly that they would do it themselves, with no help from other students,” and the Alumni Association forwarded that request to the Pandemic Preparedness Team. Its decision was that no students at all could be involved.
Then the city of Fort Collins stepped in. The Maxwell family had given the land on which the A sits to the city, which then gave the University a permanent easement. In an effort to keep the A maintained, a plan was hatched by the City of Fort Collins and the Alumni Association for two CSU alumni, Marc (B.A., ’05) and Bevin Parker (B.A., ’02), who own Maximum Painting, LLC, to do it this fall. They deemed it “an honor.” They did not want to force their employees to do it, so they asked friends, many of who are CSU alumni. A number excitedly agreed. So, again this year, the edges of the A will be lined with caution tape and water-based white paint will refresh the A. Like the students before them, these alumni will never forget being part of this wonderful tradition. As Marc Parker puts it, “We will never look at the A the same.”