Paint The 'M': A History of A Socorro Landmark

October 18, 2010

“The M…poised high above all it surveys…noting every event that takes place from Registration until Commencement, 49ers, victories, defeats, exams, Christmas Holidays…it ever remains as a symbol of student activities and the high standards of the engineering profession”


New Mexico’s centennial (January 6, 2012) is just around the corner and I suspect, even predict, it will be a time when many of our citizens re-examine the events of 100 years ago in an effort to more fully appreciate what, who, and where we are today. Many critical events occurred in Socorro’s history at that time but the details are, sadly, all but lost to us. Since the “M” has been in the news of late now seems to be an excellent time to bring its early history into the light of day and relate a few anecdotal stories along the way.

Socorro Peak’s M

Many have certainly heard the old cliché “what’s in a name?” but for our purposes it might be more appropriate to ask “what’s in a letter?” Plenty, as it turns out, especially if that letter happens to be an “M” and that “M” happens to decorate the east-facing slope of Socorro Peak.


The author, center, broom in hand, along with classmates Delbert Fraissinet and Rodger Gilbert, tries to do three full-time jobs simultaneously: 1) remain awake long enough to paint the “M,” 2) stay within the guide lines laid out for the new coat of whitewash, and 3) enjoy the scenery as much as possible through the blood-shot haze of the previous night’s bacchanal.


I became closely acquainted with that ‘M’ for the first time nearly 50 years ago and I am one of a rare group of NMIMT students – no more than 10 that year – who arrived in Socorro in September 1963 over the rails of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe’s Rio Grande Division. Upperclassman Leroy Eide met our entourage at the depot and at the first opportunity I innocently asked him what the “M” stood for? His reply: “Mines, Minerals, and Midnight Oil, and you will burn much of the latter to become proficient in the former.” For a fleeting moment I thought “how long has it been here….and who undertook to put it there? Quickly, however, I was forced to put such thoughts to rest – at least for a time – so as to focus upon the daunting task of mastering the mines and minerals. The thoughts returned a little over six months later.

St. Pat’s and the “M”

“Initiation” for the newly arrived freshman took place during the annual spring academic holiday known as St. Patrick’s Day and “M” Day had been associated with that event since 1958. For me, that day began at 5 a.m. Saturday March 14, 1964, when I and my freshman colleagues were rounded up to carry a “flagpole”(actually a telephone pole made from a giant sequoia) from the Socorro Plaza to the tug-of-war pit. From there the intrepid trailblazers faced the arduous climb to the top of Socorro Peak. Those of us who “made” it were rewarded with a gourmet lunch consisting of a potted meat sandwich and Kool-Aid and then on to the task of giving the M its annual facelift.

The astute reader is probably wondering “how could the New Mexico School of Mines/Institute of Mining and Technology, in a mere 50 years, lose the history of its oldest and most visible icon?” Simply stated all obvious first-hand accounts have not survived the ravages of time.

M Day = Horace Lyons Day

“The NMSM Class of 1914 surveyed and built the M on Socorro Peak” (Abeyta, 1965) but some 50 years would pass before the Institute of Mining & Technology was reminded of the fact and then promptly forgot it again. For 1965 was the year the Class of 1914 gathered in Socorro for their one and only reunion. All four members were present and each reminisced freely about their college days. Dr. Abeyta provided critical details regarding the “M.” In addition to the opening quote (above) he stated “the class of 1914 set the precedent of having the freshman paint it…Burros were used to carry the lime to the “M” ... The day the freshman paint the “M” ought to be called Horace Lyons Day at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology for it was Horace Lyons of the class of 1913 who put across the idea.”


A New Mexico School of Mines survey crew assembles for work near the Torrance Mine at the base of Socorro Peak in 1910. A year later, in the fall of 1911, Frank Maloit assembled a similar crew to initiate work on the “M.” The students are different – note Joe Hilton again on the far right – but with the exception of the transit the equipment was identical. New Mexico Tech Photo collection No. 681


Horace T. Lyons enrolled as a freshman at the New Mexico School of Mines in 1908 before Socorro Peak was adorned with its giant tattoo. During his years in Socorro, he became aware of two other “M’s” associated with western U.S. mining schools: the Colorado School of Mines’ “M” on Mt. Zion near Golden, Colo.., completed in 1908 and a similar one on Big Butte at the Montana School of Mines (now Montana Tech) completed in 1910. Lyonsreasoned that if other prestigious mining schools in the Rocky Mountains were bequeathed with such mascots why then should not the most prestigious mining school in the southwest have one as well?

Of course, New Mexico’s “M” must be even larger than its counterparts. So, Lyonsconceived and conveyed the idea but the task of actually surveying and laying out the “M” fell upon the shoulders of the most accomplished surveyor in the group, Frank J. Maloit.

 A Fine Collection of “M’s”

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the “M” on Socorro Peak. Montana Tech’s “M” is about 90 feet by 90 feet, while CSM’s “M” is 104 feet by 107 feet. Socorro Peak’s M, for the record, is roughly 150 feet in height and 100-110 feet in width (depending upon where one measures). The lines of the M are roughly 30 feet in width.

Socorro’s “M” did not require any kind of rock facing but it is reasonable to assume a similar amount of time – 2 to 3 months – was required to complete the task from start to finish. The final touch occurred when Maloit and crew enlisted the help of the freshman to apply the first coat of whitewash. I interviewed Frank Maloit’s son Robert and he unhesitatingly stated that his father surveyed the “M” – drum roll please – in the fall of 1911. Herewith the “traditional date of 1910” can be put to rest since Maloit did not enroll until 1911.



“M” day through the years. Collecting snow, 1945 (left) and Bill Fitch and students melting snow and mixing whitewash, 1930.



Maloit’s “fall-1911” time-frame is confirmed by handwritten notes of James Avery Smith, who indicated that the “M” was “laid out with a Brunton compass and a steel tape between 1911 and 1912 and he provided two burros to haul the first loads of lime and H20 in 1912.” This was exactly when the lime would have been needed if the survey was initiated late in 1911 and a necessary ingredient (snow) would likely been available to augment what little water was hauled by the burros. Note too that the time span of November 1911 to January 1912 conforms to that required to complete Montana Tech’s “M.”


The “M” received its first coat of whitewash circa 1912. Given the very nature of the water-born “paint” it quickly became apparent that regular maintenance would be required. School of Miens President Fayette Jones proposed in 1916 that two days be set aside for the event, but the interference of a World War and the resulting lack of students delayed the second whitewashing until 1919.

According to the 1926-27 Porphyry, “A tradition established in 1919 commands us to go forth to the Mountain at least once every school year and give the huge “M” its annual coat of slaked lime. The school schedule has a day set aside for this purpose but the actual painting is seldom done on the official date. Snowfall in Socorro is thin and erratic and we must have snow. Nearly three thousand feet in vertical distance and five miles by the long, long trail … is a bit too much even for husky miners to pack the necessary water.”


A 1920s postcard view of Socorro Peak’s “M” soon after it appeared on the mountain. Annual, and occasionally biannual, coats of whitewash gave the “M” a brighter appearance in earlier days.

According to Chieftain archives, students relied upon burros to haul lime and water through 1921. In 1922, the annual event was planned to coincide with the first snowfall, so students could melted snow to make the whitewash. That tradition held for 15 years.

Franklin T. “Casey” Davis, Schoolof Mines Class of 1941, recalled that in 1937 “the snow fell early in the year and the students dutifully climbed Socorro Peak and painted the M. By late 1937 it was decided to make M day a regularly scheduled event assigned on a particular day; students returned to packing water up the mountain.

Packing water up the mountain must have once again proven “a bit too much even for husky miners” and “M” Day resumed its dependence, at least in part, upon snow fall in 1945. During this era, a contest evolved in which the first person to arrive at the summit with their sack of lime is awarded a cash prize of $10. The record for getting a sack of lime to the summit solo and in the shortest time might go to Vladimir Ispolatov (PhD Geochem’01) who allegedly started running at the base and didn’t stop until topping the peak – a good half hour before anyone was expecting him!


Miners and “Kalso-miners”


A freshman “punk” wearily hoofs his way up the Peak back in the days when an attempt was made to pack both lime and water to the “M” in this 1948 cartoon by Mona Byers.


Whitewashing, or kalsomining, the “M” has never been an easy job or a simple undertaking. Dr. Abeyta said “it about killed some of [the freshmen].” Constantly seeking ways and means to simplify the task, the 1949 students tried “spraying” the M with the old-style pressurized insecticide canisters. The idea apparently proved unsuccessful and was abandoned, according to the 1949 Porphyry.

This narrative written by Robert Harcus in 1945 is illuminating: “For the past several days we’ve really had the snowfall. Six inches covered the countryside one day and on the next we finally held “M” Day. It was quite a time as we have about 40 freshmen now. … We started out hiking the three miles across the snow covered mesa, through waist high sage toward the base of Socorro Peak. After nearly an hour of traveling we began the long arduous ascent through snow varying from our ankles to our knees. The scenery was really worth hiking to see…

“The trees and bushes were heavily laden with their snow burden and even these three foot shrubs seemed to look down upon us as we crawled by on our hands and knees. The going was very rough as on the steep slopes we spent most of our time slipping and sliding backward. It was a very hot climb and I was forced to carry my fur coat under my arm as excess baggage, however when we finally reached the summit and sat down to eat our lunches we almost froze in the icy gale which whistled around us. After lunch we set up a snow [melting] unit consisting of a large can and a fire. After all of the freshmen reached the top we built the fire [and] got all of the 500 pounds of lime ready to mix into whitewash. Then upon the command ‘Snow!’ they formed a snow brigade, directing the snow into the large can. In other cans they mixed the whitewash taking care to slop it all over everybody, and these [cans] were carried to points on the ‘M’ where the painters armed with brooms painted the snow covered boulders with the hot lime.

“We spent about three hours on the summit and then after the job was done we sent a boulder thundering down through the snow to clear a trail for us…We left a sack burning in a can of coal oil as a beacon on the top of the mountain and it burned far into the night, appearing only as a mere twinkle from a great distance.”

“After the ordeal few if any still believed the “M” was a symbol for Mines.”

To give the lines of the “M” sharp definition, the freshmen carefully painted the edges with used engine oil. All these cosmetics are applied vigorously with brooms.

Memorable Events – Monumental Pranks

The M has a long history of nighttime illumination. I clearly recall the first time – using modern wiring and incandescent lights – occurred during 49ers in 1968. But was that the first? Not by a long shot. In fact the “M” was first illuminated much farther back in time – and not in a manner one might think – than the oldest of old-timers recently interviewed could recall. The New Mexico School of Mines went all out for its Golden (50th) Anniversary commencement exercises May 19, 1939. Special effects weighed heavily on the minds of the planners and the school set up an aircraft spotlight on campus whose brilliant beam penetrated the pitch-blackness of the New Mexico night. The M’s first nighttime illumination thus occurred over 71 years ago.

The antics and pranks pulled by the students over the years, if gathered in a single compilation, would be sufficient to fill a small book. Socorro’s “M” has never been successfully molested due primarily to its remoteness and inaccessibility although it came close on one occasion and not by pranksters from another university. It seems that a “wayward” group of Mines’ students paused for a rest about 400 yards below the M. One of the group suddenly exclaimed “Say, we’ve the lime and water. Let’s paint our own little “M” right here.” Most fortunately for the sake of tradition a comely co-ed happened by at the critical moment “and shamed them from making the sacrilegious reproduction” (Gold Pan, 10/22/1954, p 6).

The School of Mines’ students did however wreak havoc with other university letters.  Roland Dickey wrote that in 1947 a group of Mines students repainted the U of the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque into an M, and on another occasion the T at New Mexico State Teacher’s College (now known as WNMU) at Silver City was changed into an “M.”

In 1948 the Miners did it again: According to the 1948 Porphyry, “During State Fair Week and for the second time within a year, the people of Albuquerque awoke one morning to view the enigma of an “M” occupying the position where the University “U” normally graces one of the foothills east of the city. … Old timers … were heard to mumble petulantly something about ‘inmates breaking out of that Socorro asylum again’.”

When the School of Mines’ college rivals discovered they could not molest Socorro Peak’s M they found other ways to extract their retaliatory pound of flesh. One result was Socorro’s students waking one morning to find their precious Desert Maiden sporting a new wardrobe composed of black tar and feathers (Gold Pan, 11/30/1955, p 1).

M for all Ages

Near the close of the 2011 year the Socorro “M” will be 100 years of age and it is incumbent upon us, the successors-in-fact to the School of Mines, to assure its health and longevity.

We again should acknowledge a debt of gratitude not only to the NMSM Classes of 1913-14 – Lyons, Smith, Abeyta, O’Boyle, Campredon, and especially Frank Maloit – for bequeathing us with this gift for the ages but also to the university administration for doing the best it can in the face of waning enthusiasm. Without their perseverance and dedication to the task, we might not have that “M’ on Socorro Peak today. “M” Day, once firmly associated with an annual campus event, has of late been an intermittent and less formal affair since the retirement of St. Pat’s in 1985. Prior to St. Pat’s it was associated with 49ers and it is gratifying to note the latter tradition has been revived in recent years.

This is certainly a step in the right direction because, denied annual maintenance, both the appearance and brilliance of the letter has suffered. Moreover the re-association with 49ers is an indication to every entering freshman that they are expected (though not required) to participate in “M” Day. This goes a long way toward instilling a sense of school spirit and loyalty to the alma mater: the “M” is now a part of them and vice versa.

The use of slaked lime for painting was discontinued because it was deemed too toxic. Powdered limestone or marble is used today but it is an inferior substitute and cannot bond with the substrate. When whitewash reacts with CO2 in the atmosphere it forms a hard, durable coating of calcium carbonate. We are engineers, geologists, and scientists who will likely work with substances much more dangerous than calcium hydroxide and Portland cement throughout our careers. The “toxicity” problem can be overcome with the use of gloves and goggles and hopefully the use of whitewash can be reconsidered.

Bob Eveleth is a New Mexico Tech graduate and a senior geologist at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.