Lighting the
Lighting the "S" on Cowles Mountain for SDSU's centennial celebration.
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The "S" on Cowles Mountain

Aerial view of Cowles Mountain and SDSU campus from 1948.
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Aerial view of Cowles Mountain and SDSU campus from 1948.
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Once upon a time, when hardly anyone lived in the shadow of Cowles Mountain, much less debated how to pronounce its name, the peak that dominates the skyline north of Montezuma Mesa belonged to San Diego State.

Or at least that’s what the students decided 81 years ago as they looked out from a brand new campus set amid miles of undeveloped chaparral. Still the highest point in the city at 1,593 feet, Cowles Mountain seemed the perfect billboard to advertise Aztec pride.

A campus committee quickly came up with the idea of painting rocks near the summit to create a huge “S,” and President Edward L. Hardy cancelled classes for a day to support the effort.

On Friday, Feb. 27, 1931, some 500 students, most lowly freshmen, climbed the mountain with buckets of paint and sacks of lime to create a 400-foot-high initial designed by math professor George Livingston to appear perfectly proportioned from below.

Maintaining “S” Mountain, as students dubbed it, became an important campus tradition. Each year, zealous Aztecs repainted the giant letter, until World War II forced San Diego to take cover, and the site had to be camouflaged with brush cuttings.

By April 1944, with the war winding down, students eagerly revived the “S” and through the 50s, frequently lit the symbol with torches to celebrate homecoming or a football season opener.

Neglected mountain

During the turbulent Vietnam War years, when students nationwide abandoned many long-standing campus traditions, Aztecs also neglected “S” Mountain. But only for a time.

The old symbol enjoyed a resurgence after a 1985 brush fire exposed what was left of it, prompting another student painting party. Another restoration effort in 1991 may have been the last time paint and lime touched Cowles Mountain. Safety and environmental concerns have since eclipsed college traditions.

But as 1997, the university’s centennial year, approached, campus planners remembered the glory days of “S” Mountain. It’s too bad we can’t whitewash the “S” again, someone said. And then emeritus professor Henry Janssen, an SDSU institution since arriving on campus as a young Ph.D. in 1953, came up with a brilliant idea.

“What if we went up there with a bunch of flashlights and lit it?” he asked.

After much bureaucratic wrangling, Janssen won approval for his idea and recruited a group of 80 volunteers—most campus honor society members, plus a few faculty and staff, even some who had whitewashed the “S” as students.  

On the morning of March 13, 1997 Janssen and a Mission Trails Park ranger, one of his former students, recreated the “S” with yellow police tape. While Janssen held one end of a rope cut to the proper length, the ranger pulled it taut and walked a big half-circle, spooling out the tape as he went. Moving a little farther down the mountain, the two men repeated the process in the other direction to create the bottom half of the “S.”

Late in the afternoon, the entire group of volunteers headed up the mountain, with television news crews waiting below to broadcast their performance. But when the Aztecs arrived at the appointed spot, they found the tape gone and a small group of people who’d opposed their effort sitting nearby, laughing.

Flexing Ph.D. power

Janssen, however, had come prepared with his measuring cord, enabling the group to retrace the “S” just as he and the ranger had done that morning.

Now 90, Janssen relishes recalling what happened next. “As soon as we all got in place, I did a countdown, and all the flashlights came on, and it was lovely. Then I said, turn them off at the count of three, and then turn them back on.

“So we did this for a while, and drivers passing below began to honk their horns and go crazy, because they knew what we were doing, and they wanted to be involved. We closed it off by starting at the top and—one at a time—turning our lights off.

“It was the best kickoff to the centennial celebration we could have devised. And when we closed the last light, I really wanted to yell to those people who’d laughed at us, “Don’t @#$% with Ph.D.s!”

Historical information for this article came from “San Diego State University: A History in Word and Image” by Raymond Starr.
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