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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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Left: A historic view of "S Mountain." Right: Chelsea Lombrozo (left) and Michelle Halverson of SDSU Student Life and Leadership stood next to an S symbol to be displayed for homecoming. Left: A historic view of "S Mountain." Right: Chelsea Lombrozo (left) and Michelle Halverson of SDSU Student Life and Leadership stood next to an S symbol to be displayed for homecoming.

The Cowles Mountain ‘S’ — Yesterday and Today

A new version of a historic SDSU homecoming stunt prompts a look back at a now-unthinkable college tradition.
By Aaron Burgin

A longstanding San Diego State tradition is being reimagined this Homecoming season for a new generation of Aztecs.

For decades, hundreds of students, faculty and staff would scale Cowles Mountain, the highest peak in the City of San Diego. With buckets of paint and sacks of lime, they created a 400-foot-high “S” just below the top of the mountain, miles away but visible from parts of campus.

Sometimes during Homecoming week, they would set the symbolic shoutout to “State” on fire, compounding what would now be regarded as an unconscionable destruction of nature.

This year’s students will have opportunities to paint, and in some cases light, a different and more environmentally conscious “S.”

In the week leading up to the Nov. 13 Homecoming football game, a five-foot-tall scarlet-colored metal “S” will be displayed for the first time Monday at the Homecoming Pep Rally at the Lee & Frank Goldberg Courtyard at the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union. From Tuesday to Thursday, it will be visible on the Student Life & Leadership balcony in the student union. In a private ceremony on Friday, members of the Homecoming court will light candles and place them on the “S.”  

Additionally, students will have the chance to paint two large, white Styrofoam “S” letters at a pair of Homecoming events on Wednesday, including the “Creative as One” event from noon to 2 p.m. in the Goldberg Courtyard.

School officials said the renewed tradition will help connect the current student body, which is celebrating Homecoming on campus for the first time in two years, to those from years gone by.

“College rituals and traditions play a unique role in creating a sense of shared values and experiences,” said Dean of Students Randy Timm. “They help bond us to our alma mater and create a sense of community that extends through generations of students.

“The tradition of the ‘S’ at San Diego State goes back decades, through wars, pandemics and generations of students,” he said. “It is a visual representation that can unite and ignite pride in our community. SDSU students are reigniting the ritual of the ‘S’ with a focus on sustainability. We look forward to bringing the tradition back to life and on to campus.”

The first S-painting ceremony dates back to Feb. 27, 1931. Some 500 students – mostly first-year students at what was then San Diego State Teachers College – climbed the 1,500-foot mountain with paint and lime and created the “S,” which was designed by math professor George Livingston, on the face of the mountain.

It was such a big deal that then-President Edward L. Hardy canceled classes for a day to support the effort.

At the time it was designed, “S Mountain” was the largest collegiate symbol in the world, said Seth Mallios, professor of anthropology and university history curator.

“That was one of the reasons why the tradition persisted for so long,” Mallios said. “The other reason was because the painting of the ‘S’ started right when we moved from Normal Heights to Montezuma Mesa, and it was an important moment when the school rebranded and took on a new identity and folks got excited about new traditions.”

Hiatus and renewal

“S Mountain” became a fixture at SDSU until World War II, when it was briefly camouflaged out of fears of it becoming a locator for possible Japanese aerial attacks. Following the war’s end, students continued the tradition into the ’60s, frequently lighting the symbol with torches to celebrate Homecoming or a football season opener. During the Vietnam War era, however, students abandoned the “S” until the mid-1980s, when a brush fire uncovered the vestiges of the “S” and prompted another repainting effort.

In 1997, a group of SDSU students, faculty, staff and alumni scaled the mountain and re-created the massive “S” with flashlights. Drivers on Interstate 8 recognized the homage to the “S Mountain” tradition and began honking.

While safety and environmental concerns have all but guaranteed students will not paint the “S” atop Cowles Mountain again, university officials said it’s important for the newest students to know the history and traditions. The renewal comes at a critical juncture for the university, as two classes of SDSU students — nearly half of the undergraduate student body — are attending classes on campus for the very first time.

“I think it’s important both for education, but also for community building,” Mallios said. “Something that is often overlooked as one of Hardy’s legacies was that he wanted the university to have the complete student experience. That included athletics, student clubs and organizations, artistic performances, and he was a huge fan of the “S” being painted on the mountain because that’s all part of that complete college experience.

“After what we’ve been through these last two school years, one of the casualties was the student experience, so I think it’s fantastic that students and the university are reimagining these traditions in an environmentally sensitive way.”

This is just one of many events happening this Homecoming. For a full list of events and how to get involved visit the Homecoming website.