It’s the start of a new school year this week, an occasion marked for Fairbanks high schools with a fresh coat of paint on the schools' “spirit rock.”
What’s now a common pastime of students painting the boulders that sit outside local high schools actually goes back 30 years this month, when the idea came from a Lathrop High School teacher.
In August 1989, Carl Strange was teaching Latin at Lathrop. The school district had been having some trouble with vandalism when Strange had an idea, spurred by memories of a boulder on Interstate 26, near where he lived in South Carolina when he was young.
Two rival universities used to go back and forth painting the boulder in their school colors, said Strange, who now lives in the Lower 48 and recalled the story to the News-Miner via phone.
“It struck me as an idea that we could bring in some kind of boulder and encourage people to paint it, and therefore, they would have something to paint, and they could leave their message,” he said.
Then whatever students painted could be on display, Strange said, until somebody else painted over it.
He got the principal’s permission and contacted Brown’s Hill Quarry in North Pole. The quarry owner agreed to donate a huge basalt rock.
The rock weighed several tons, according to Strange, and was about the size of a small car, so transporting it from the bed of a truck in North Pole to the lawn of Lathrop High School required some ingenuity.
“It required two forklifts that came in on opposite sides and lifted it up, and then the flatbed truck moved away,” Strange said.
Brown’s Hill Quarry and Sourdough Express, which loaned the forklifts, collaborated to place the rock outside of the school. Afterward it was officially available for a new paint job on Aug. 28, 1989.
The high schoolers had positive responses.
“They thought it was great and of course there was fierce competition to be the first one to write something on the rock, but that distinction went to one of my students,” Strange said.
Because he was a Latin teacher, a Latin student was first to write on the basalt boulder, painting “Latin rules.” Strange said the message probably remains today under decades of paint layers.
The Lathrop rock installation inspired other schools that also were dealing with vandalism issues.
“You’d get this ugly graffiti on buildings and building structures that cost a lot of money to remove and, if it couldn’t get removed right away, it was really unsightly,” said Assistant Superintendent Shaun Kraska. Kraska was a teacher and student council adviser for West Valley at the time.
West Valley High School would get its own spirit rock just a year after Lathrop, as a donation from the Class of 1990. Now there are rocks outside Hutchison, Eielson, Monroe Catholic and North Pole high schools.
Prior to the spirit rocks' arrival, Kraska said people would spray paint on picnic tables, buildings, concrete barriers and car plug ins. The spirit rock, she said, was a wonderful concept that allowed kids to paint, have a cross town rivalry or express themselves.
“So not only is it to deter from the vandalism, it’s kind of a fun internal concept, too,” she said.
When the West Valley spirit rock arrived, Kraska said she could remember the back-and-forth between Lathrop and West Valley, with students from their respective schools painting the other school’s rock.
While he said he has some pride in coming up with the initial concept, Strange said he likes to think of the spirit rocks as an “eloquent solution” to a problem the district was having.
The spirit rocks have not been without some of their own surrounding mischief — after all they are giant rocks intended for graffiti. Kraska said if anything obscene is ever painted on the spirit rocks, the district can paint over it right away, as the district wants the rocks to remain clean and positive.
Strange, meanwhile, recalls an attempted rock heist, in which someone tried to drag the Lathrop rock away by attaching it to their car with a chain.
“We know this because the next morning school officials found a bumper and a chain attached to the school rock because the rock wasn’t going anywhere,” Strange said.
It did eventually go somewhere, or at least it shifted a little. Changes to parking around Lathrop required the rock to be moved to its current location, closer to the sidewalk near Airport Way.
Nevertheless, 30 years later, the Lathrop spirit rock, and all the rocks that came after, remain outside their respective high schools ready for the next round of kids with the next coat of paint.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMlocal.