Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.
University of Texas at El Paso students who have helped whitewash the “M” on the mountain, whether the original above Scenic Drive or the one across from Sun Bowl Stadium, will admit it is one of the hardest jobs they ever loved.
Lugging buckets of slake lime and water, brushes and brooms up the mountain to manicure the giant letter can be physically taxing. But for most, a few sore muscles are worth the resulting smiles, laughs and deeper connection with UTEP and their classmates.
The original M on the Franklins was painted on Nov. 21, 1923, just to the east of what is now Murchison Park. Those who helped paint the 150-square-foot letter said that it was on a line with Willow Street.
Ron Mishkin, a mining geologist who earned his bachelor’s degree in geology in 1953, said he participated several times, including once when he took his trumpet along. He remembered playing “The Eyes of Texas are Upon You,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and other tunes when he was not slopping on the lime. The alumnus from Lake Hopatcong, N.J. said it was tough work, but a labor of love.
“It really was a festive time; kind of like a party,” he said with a smile you could hear through the phone. “There were plenty of pretty girls and free food. It was fun.”
According to the 1924 Flowsheet, the school’s yearbook, a surveying crew from the College of Mines and Metallurgy (now UTEP) prepared the site the day before many of the 96-member student body played hooky to help start a tradition. In the evening, students outlined the new M with red flares that could be seen well into the Lower Valley.
The giant letter generated some negative responses from community leaders who saw the M as glorified graffiti. H.D. Slater, chairman of El Paso’s City Plan Commission and the first person to propose establishing a school of mines in El Paso in 1902, said it was “in bad taste and a detriment to the city.”
Because of the opposition, the repainting of the letter in 1924 was postponed indefinitely. The whitewashing was restarted in the 1930s and by the 1940s radio stations were making live broadcast reports during the event.
James Peak, 1958-59 student body president who earned his bachelor’s degree in broadcasting in 1958, said he and his peers saw the M as a sign of pride. Adding another coat of lime became part of the annual fall “M” Day tradition that ended with a “bean feed.”
At the time, the school’s student population was about 3,700 and most of the participants were freshmen, engineering majors and members of fraternities and sororities. They would form a bucket brigade and haul five-gallon jugs of whitewash up the mountain’s 30-degree slope.
“It was quite a challenge doing that work standing at an angle. It was a heck of a job and took a lot of people,” Peak said. “Those were wild days.”
Longtime El Paso educator Betty Wilkinson remembers participating in the whitewashing as a freshman in the spring of 1946. She recalled giggling all the way up with members of her sisters from the Chi Omega women’s fraternity.
“It was a great feeling to look up and see the M,” said Wilkinson, who earned her bachelor’s in elementary education in 1950 and her master’s in education in 1977. “It was a matter of pride.”
Construction of the new M off Sun Bowl Drive started Sept. 18, 1965. A story in the Sept. 10 edition of The Prospector student newspaper reported the work would be completed in November 1965. An editorial in the same issue stated the decision to change locations was initiated by Texas Western College’s student government. They were concerned with the mounting expenses associated with transporting students and materials to the site. Other issues were that the M could not be seen from campus, and it was set among similar letters representing area high schools.
Whitewashing the campus M, 104 feet tall and 103 feet wide on a 32-degree slope, remains one of UTEP’s strongest and oldest traditions on TCM (Texas College of Mines) Day, which is scheduled annually around March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick is the patron saint of engineers.