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With The U Of I’s Alma Mater Back, A Look At Other Campus Icons

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The Word of Life, or Touchdown Jesus

The Word of Life mural on the Notre Dame Library, better known as 'Touchdown Jesus' (Reddit)

The Alma Mater sculpture is back on its base at Wright and Green streets on the the University of Illinois campus, after an 18-month renovation.  The return of what many graduates view as a campus icon got us thinking… what objects at other schools in the region are held in similar regard? 

The Alma Mater --- Lorado Taft’s 1929 sculpture featuring a woman with outstretched hands, attended by two other figures personifying the U of I motto of “Learning and Labor” is a natural site for a graduation photo. 

There’s another site with similar appeal at Illinois’ Big Ten rival to the northeast, Michigan State University. But it didn’t require the work of a sculptor, just excavation work.

 One hundred forty years ago, graduates of Michigan State donated a large chunk of puddingstone to the East Lansing campus, inscribing it with the words “Class of ‘73.”

Located at different sites over the years, the stone became known as “The Engagement Rock”, as it was the site of many marriage proposals.

But MSU Archives Assistant Director Portia Vescio said other messages showed up beginning in the 1970’s,  covering up the original inscription. 

“And they would try and sand blast it, and clean it, but messages would keep re-appearing," she said.  "Then they moved the rock from its location near Beaumont Tower to in front of the police building. And then finally in 1986, they accepted that students would use that rock for messages.  Then they moved it to its current location.”

Vescio says the Engagement Rock, now known simply as The Rock was a centerpiece for memorials following the September 11th attacks, but otherwise, it’s been a setting for more individual messages ranging from birthday greetings, messages from student groups, and Michigan State Spartan fans.

But Vescio and staff say the most beloved Michigan State icon is the Spartan Statue, or ‘Sparty’, unveiled in 1945. 

Because of a shortage of bronze during World War 2, it was cast in ceramic, and remains world’s largest, free-standing ceramic statue. 

By 2005, weather had taken its toll, and Sparty was moved indoors to the Spartan stadium annex, with a new bronze Sparty taking its original place.  It’s remained a focal point for interstate rivals.

“I know in the past, students used to stand guard over Sparty before our big football games against Michigan to prevent Michigan fans from painting it the blue and gold," Vescio said.

Trek south from East Lansing about 250 miles, to South Bend, Indiana- and you’ll find a number of icons on the Notre Dame campus connected to Fighting Irish football. 

But glorifying football wasn’t the original intent of the mural known as "The Word of Life.”  It’s 130 feet high, commemorating 'Christ and the Saints of Learning' a procession of great teachers, writers and theologians through the ages. 

University Spokesman Dennis Brown said the 1964 mosaic on the side of Hesbergh Library quickly became known as “Touchdown Jesus.’ 

“It was not long after the mural was put in place that students looked from the football stadium, out the north end zone and could see this gigantic figure of Jesus with his arms upraised, and quickly adopted the nickname," he said.  "It was totally coincidental – nobody ever saw that coming.”

Brown said many aim their cameras from their upper deck of the south end zone, and get the team on the field, the stands, and the Jesus image looming over it all.

But more typically, he said graduates like to pose up against the mural with their arms raised.  

And students there have learned to appreciate other religious-themed icons on campus,  including a Moses statue with his finger raised, known as ‘First Down Moses’ – and another of Father William Corby, a Union Army Chaplain who twice served as Notre Dame’s president. With one arm raised, the statue is known as ‘Fair Catch Corby.’

Back in Champaign,before crowds on Wednesday saw cranes hoist the Alma Mater back into place – and just weeks before many graduates will again pose with it for graduation pictures – the U of I asked for some memories for a time capsule.

It was placed in the base, under the statue, where it likely won’t be opened until the next time the Alma Mater needs work. 

It includes over 1,000 formal messages from academic departments plus historical items – but also personal memories from Illinois alumni of years past. 

Vanessa Fuere is with U of I Alumi Association.

“We had some great responses of people recalling when they met their future spouse at the alma mater, and special memento they had of when they took they took their photograph on their wedding day in the front the statue.  People who found their passion here – they look to the alma mater statue as the icon, or representative of all that that means for them.”

And like campus icons elsewhere, the freshly restored Alma Mater is expected to be a symbol of the college experience for generations to come.

Categories: Education