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Theories Abound on Origin of the Big ‘S’

Times Staff Writer

Between munches of a chicken salad bagel, one woman said she had heard that Skinheads did it.

“I heard they painted the ‘S,’ ” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. “I heard they wanted to paint a W and a P, as well, for Supreme White Power. That’s what the Skinheads like to paint. But the police caught them before they could do the other two letters.”

The women were lunching at Baltimore Bagel Co., a bakery-delicatessen on Navajo Road in San Carlos, in the shadow of Cowles Mountain, which at 1,591 feet is the highest point in the city of San Diego.

The subject of their concern--and a conversational topic among many in San Carlos these days--was the “S” painted in large white letters on the side of Cowles Mountain.

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Hidden by Brush

For many years the S was hidden by heavy brush, but, in September, a fire made it visible again. The sudden appearance has made it San Carlos’ low-rent version of the shroud of Turin or the Loch Ness monster, spawning a number of theories about its origin.

Michael Brau, president of Baltimore Bagel Co., said one employee in his San Carlos outlet is convinced that Skinheads did it. Another insists that San Diego State University students did it. Another says it stands for State, as in SDSU. And yet another says it stands for San Carlos.

Steve Willard, a community service officer for the San Diego Police Department, said he has heard all the theories and has one that is his personal favorite.

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“Recently, an El Cajon business was using a large inflatable Superman in one of its displays,” Willard said. “Well, somehow, Superman got away and started flying over Cowles Mountain. Somebody said the S mysteriously appeared after Superman’s flight. So, I like that one the best--Superman put it up there, like a cat marking a tree.”

And now for the truth, or the version that most folks seem to see as the truth: A spokesman for the Open Space Division of the city Park and Recreation Department--who asked not to be quoted by name--said the S was painted as long ago as the 1950s, probably much earlier.

He said it was done by fraternity and sorority students at SDSU. It vanished for a number of years, held hostage by heavy brush. The Cowles Mountain fire of Sept. 3, 1988, burned away much of the brush, causing it to reappear. Not only was brush not blocking it from view, but the blackened ground silhouetted it and made it as visible as it’s ever been.

Because many San Diegans were not here in the ‘50s, or the ‘60s, ‘70s or early ‘80s, they naturally wondered about the origin of the S.

Some who have been in San Diego for those years view the S fondly, even nostalgically, and want it preserved. To some it’s San Diego’s

version of the famous HOLLYWOOD that appears on the side of a mountain about 100 miles north.

“It stands for San Diego State,” said Gail Rodieck, a San Carlos homeowner who graduated from SDSU in 1968. “Back in the ‘50s, it was a big deal for fraternities and sororities to climb up Cowles and use lime to paint the S. I’m not sure why they don’t do it anymore. Maybe it’s a lack of school spirit. They used to maintain it every year. It was really a big deal.

“Of course, I never went up there and did it. I thought it was silly. But really, what’s the big deal? Little towns across America have letters like that on mountains or water towers. Why can’t we?”

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Rodieck laughed hysterically about the Skinhead theory.

“That thing’s been up there long before any Skinheads were born,” she said. “Yeah, Skinheads did it. They made the mountain bald so we could all see their S.”

Frank Aronoff, a Laguna Beach businessman who attended SDSU from 1967 to 1971 and then worked there until 1985, said the S has been part of Cowles Mountain lore since the days of the Great Depression.

“The school opened in February of 1931,” Aronoff said by telephone from Orange County. “Shortly after that, it became an annual freshman rite to climb up there at the start of the school year and relime the S. It became a tradition, but it was also important for aircraft. It became a beacon for pilots to know where they were. I’m not kidding.

“Believe it or not, during the war, somebody painted over it, fearing it could be a distinguishing mark for San Diego, one that might tempt an enemy. I painted it in 1971 as part of a homecoming ritual. It may have been done once or twice since that time. I know no one said anything about it in ’71--that is, no one accused us of doing anything wrong. In fact, just the opposite.

“I know that it became very uncool to do it in the ‘60s--it was not an environmentally sound thing to do. But really, now, it’s just part of the history of San Diego, and of SDSU.”

But the Park and Recreation Department spokesman said times have changed, and no one should try to embellish the S today. Since the late ‘60s, it has been part of Mission Trails Regional Park, operated jointly by the city and county. The man said anyone trying to paint or repaint the S now, without city permission, would be in serious trouble.

“That would be an act of vandalism, and the police would go after them with a vengeance,” he said. “Or, our ranger would. Park and Rec has a ranger stationed full-time on Cowles Mountain. We would like to totally get rid of the stupid thing. We hate it. We think it looks stupid.”

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