Our class this year has quite a few young boys [who] are small in stature, but not in willpower. We held our own in the lining of … the Block P on the hill. Hauling the lime up the hill is no joke, but we didn’t balk, just went right on hauling and lining. Maybe we are little, but we’ll grow up some day and make mighty Seniors.
The Poly P, one of the oldest hillside initials in the West, is the embodiment of Cal Poly’s eventful history. Although there are several versions of the Poly P’s origins, the first mention of the hillside icon is found in a 1919 issue of The Polygram, the student newspaper. Rivalry between the California Polytechnic School and San Luis Obispo High School was always intense, but one fall morning of that year, Poly students awoke to find several large stone H (for High) letters on the hills surrounding the town. The Poly students changed each H to a P; the San Luis High students battled back. Students from the Poly concentrated their defense on hillside P overlooking the campus, which has adorned the foothill ever since.
The hastily chosen site was ideal, visible from the highway, the town, and the original Administration building, where the clock tower now stands. Born out of rivalry, the P now shone as the symbol of students’ pride in their campus. Throughout the 1920s, the freshman dormitory boys, under the “delicate supervision” of the sophomores, maintained the 24-by-40-foot P, tidying up its stone outline and filling it in with a fresh layer of lime.
The cleaning of the P, organized by the Dormitory Club, took place each fall before the Homecoming game.After particularly rainy winters, the P received additional care from the freshmen, usually before the Easter break. Before the 1921 Homecoming game, the Dorm boys lighted a large bonfire and guarded the Poly P through the night from rivals.
Faculty also recognized the P’s significance to the school, supporting the students’ protective efforts. Don Fulwider ’25, recalled:
One Friday night hours after the lights were out … there were rumors … that the school we were playing on Saturday was going to deface the P. While trying to wake another friend, I was met by Captain Deuel [the dorm monitor]. He shone his flash[light] in my face and wanted to know what was going on … half the dorm was AWOL. When I told him … he said, Wake your friends and get up there … but spread the word — Don’t step one foot off the campus.
Eventually the maintenance of the “P” was determined an athletic contest between the freshman and sophomore classes. The Freshman-Sophomore Brawl featured a tug of war, greased pole climbs, three-legged races, wheelbarrow races, and other tests of skill and endurance. As the school grew, the Rally Club, a spirit organization, inherited the maintenance and added light to the P for their rallies the day before a football game, dragging a generator up the steep slope. If Poly won the game, the lighted P was replaced with a V for victory.
The original rock-and-lime configuration changed over the years, including a period when the Block P Club used white-washed barn doors to form the letter. An enlarged concrete P was finished on May 3, 1957, by Delta Sigma Phi, using supplies donated by local businesses and tractors driven by agricultural engineering majors. This 50-by-35 foot P still overlooks the campus today.
Decorating the P to spell out messages — even proposals of marriage — is a long-standing campus tradition, often reflecting the temper of the times. In 1964, the P was modified to GOP, in the 1970s POT appeared, and in the 1980s an ambitious group spelled out SPRINGSTEEN. The P is also frequently altered to the names of fraternities, sororities and campus clubs, with white bed sheets twisted into letters as the favorite temporary means of expression.
In 1994, the Running Thunder spirit organization assumed both the care of the P and its lighting for games. Four years later, Running Thunder and the local Sierra Club group blazed a trail to the P, which is accessible behind the residence halls. Thanks to cooperative efforts such as these, the P on the hill still stands for Poly.