By Ben Fogelberg (B.A. ’94, M.A. ’98)
It’s easy to take Colorado State University’s tradition of painting the A every fall for granted, in part because the larger-than-life symbol of our Aggie heritage has graced the Fort Collins landscape for so long that it has become as much a part of the city’s western backdrop as Horsetooth Mountain. But behind every timeless tradition is a story, and every good story has at least one pivotal crisis and a character that goes above and beyond to resolve it.
The protagonist of this story is Bill Woods, a 1958 graduate, Vietnam War veteran, retired U.S. Army Colonel, and former president of the CSU Alumni Association. Woods and his wife, Jan, grew up on farms in northern Colorado and met as students at CSU. Following his retirement from the military, the couple returned to Fort Collins, where Woods served as office manager for the law firm Fischer, Brown, Huddleson and Gunn for 20 years. Jan worked for the College of Natural Sciences and is now retired. Both committed themselves to supporting their alma mater in any way possible.
One day in the late 1970’s, Woods met up with longtime friend and CSU Athletics Director Thurman “Fum” McGraw and told him to give him a call if he ever needed help with anything. Fum took him up on the offer and asked him to revive the faltering tradition of painting the A.
The A’s story began on December 4, 1923, when students agreed during a school assembly to create an insignia on the hogback west of campus. Work began a week later when students cleared underbrush and moved rocks under the A Club’s supervision. The military department donated vehicles to transport supplies and volunteers. In the meantime, the college had acquired a long-term lease from landowner R.G. Maxwell for $1. The following September, students lengthened the A’s legs and lowered the crossbar, increasing its size to 450 feet high and 210 feet wide at the bottom. A week later, freshman whitewashed the A, starting an annual rite that became part of the incoming class’s induction into the Aggie — and then Rams — family.
Fum, often described as CSU’s “greatest supporter,” understood that if the A eroded, so too would University spirit and pride. The annual freshman tradition had fallen by the wayside, and whitewashing had become an unofficial, ad hoc operation.
Bill Woods changed all that. First, he enlisted members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. At that time, Woods was serving as SAE’s alumni advisor and is a former president of its national governing body. Later, he recruited red-shirt freshman football players to carry equipment up the hill and the track team to bring it all back down.
Woods has helped coordinate the annual Painting the A event ever since, realizing his goal of re-instituting an inclusive freshman experience and preserving a tradition. He’s had lots of help along the way, especially from Marshall Frasier, a professor of agriculture and resource economics. Frasier joined the A team in 2007 and is “the masterful coordinator on the hill,” says Woods. “He exemplifies the pride in great results that we all have and that we share with our CSU community.”
Recently, Fraser returned the complement. “I’ve said this before and will continue to make this clear to everyone that I encounter: this event IS Bill Woods.”
Today, the CSU Alumni Association buys the environmentally friendly paint and a local gas company hauls it up to the top of the hogback, where students bused from Moby Arena use spray guns to renew the treasured symbol. Redshirt freshmen football players and members of the track team continue to be involved, as are members of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity who serve as “crew bosses.”
Last February, the City of Fort Collins renewed CSU’s right to maintain the A for the next decade, and then in 10-year increments in perpetuity, provided the University lives up to its obligations. That’s guaranteed, thanks to dedicated alumni supporters like Bill Woods and friends.