by Valerie Kimble
Perhaps we can think of the periodic lighting of the “M” on Socorro Mountain as the modern equivalent of a New Mexico Tech tradition that is almost one hundred years old.
Starting in 1910, then-New Mexico School of Mines students carried lime up the mountain to “whitewash” the rocks which spell out the letter “M” on the peak formally known as Socorro Mountain.
These days, the illumination has copper and tungsten origins instead of limestone and dihydrous oxygen.
“We light up the ‘M’ for finals week, for graduation, and at the beginning of the semester,” said Van Romero, New Mexico Tech’s Vice President for Research and Economic Development.
“It’s lit for finals week as a way of wishing the students good luck,” Romero said. “And we light it up at the beginning of the semester so students can find their way back to Socorro.”
As a former student at New Mexico Tech, Romero has first-hand knowledge behind his tongue-in-cheek comment.
Until 1985, painting the “M” had been an annual tradition at the “small school on the Rio Grande,” also the name of a book written by former New Mexico Tech history professor, Paige W. Christiansen.
In his book, Christiansen explains that the early years of whitewashing the M (from 1910 to 1916) were unorganized as a student affair until School of Mines President Fayette Jones suggested that two days be set aside annually to repaint the rocks.
Jones envisioned the event as an overnight camping trip; but overnight trips were difficult to organize and manage, wrote Christiansen.
Instead, he said, beginning in the 1920s, the sophomores and the freshmen waited until “ the first snow flies” to climb the mountain and mix lime with melted snow to do the job.
“The pattern changed, however, for there was no snow,” wrote Christiansen. “The lime continued to be carried to the top of the mountain by hand, but water was supplied by truck.”
In 1958, “painting the M” became part of the annual St. Patrick’s tradition, St. Paddy being the patron saint of miners.
Over time, the sophomores laid aside their paintbrushes to supervise the freshmen. “Cash prizes were awarded to the team of two who first arrived at the M with a 90-pound bag of lime,” wrote Christiansen.
“It was a festive occasion and promoted considerable spirit amongst the students,” he wrote.
These days, Lisa Garcia, administrative assistant to the vice president, presses a switch, and presto! let there be light on the mountain, minus the lime and water.
According to Romero, in the early days of lighting the M, ropes of loose wire were laid on the ground and fashioned into the shape of the letter.
Mountains and wire being natural temptations for kids, it wasn’t long before the younger generation discovered the loose wire and rearranged the letters to form a “W.”
Whether the young hikers did it intentionally or not, the “W” stands for the first letter of “Warriors,” the mascot of Socorro High School athletic teams.
New Mexico Tech picked up the cue, and now lights the “W” for high school graduation and key athletic events.
These days, the loose wires have been replaced with conduit and cement and a remote-controlled switch in Brown Hall.
Less romantic, more efficient; less muscle, more technology; less remembered, more nostalgic.
This Saturday, the New Mexico School of Mines graduating class of 1954 will be honored at New Mexico Tech commencement exercises.
The five graduates returning to their alma mater will recall the days when they hauled 90-pound bags of limestone on their young backs up a 2,550-foot climb some three miles from campus and 7,243 feet above sea level.
If asked to repeat the feat today, they might just opt for flipping on a switch.
But they’ll be electrified by the memories nonetheless.