A rock and a tradition

Kristyn Soltis

The paintings by students and alumni create a stone time capsule

Supporters painted the rock on front campus for business student Christopher Kernich, who died Nov. 21 from injuries suffered during an off campus assault. GLENNIS SIEGFRIED | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

“The Rock” on Kent State’s front campus rarely goes untouched. Students, and even some staff members, make their way to the Rock at all hours of the day with paint and brushes in hand, sometimes multiple times a day. It changes color and design almost nightly.

The Rock, which is currently blue and white and slowly being covered in snow, allows students to represent their fraternity or sorority, remember friends who have died or to wish others a happy birthday.

Painting the Rock began as a campus tradition in the 1930s when Greek organizations would paint their letters on the large granite boulder on West Main Street.

Eventually, anyone and everyone with an upcoming event worth mentioning picked up their brushes and spray paint cans to cover the Rock in flashy colors. It became such a custom at the university that in 1972, when Main Street was widened, the Rock was moved a safe distance from the street.

Today, the Rock, now at the bottom of Hilltop Drive, sits with the words “Forever CK 11-21-09.”

The Rock as a tribute

Jolie Houghtaling, senior sports administration major, painted those words on the Rock in memory of Christopher Kernich, a 23-year-old junior pre-business major, who died Nov. 21 from the injuries he suffered during an off-campus assault.

“Once we had found out what happened to CK, there was a group of about 15 Kent State students who were his best friends, and we stayed at the hospital with him all week long,” Houghtaling said. “One of the nights when we came home we thought it would be a good idea to paint the Rock saying ‘Pray 4 CK’ to make everyone aware of what was going on and to get as many people to pray for him as possible. Once he passed away, we then wanted to repaint it.”

The ‘Pray 4 CK’ design was painted with red and white lettering because Kernich was an Ohio State fan. Houghtaling said the Buckeyes were his favorite team.

“After he passed, we used baby blue and white because those were the colors of his high school in Fairborn,” Houghtaling said.

She said Fairborn was such a big part of Kernich’s life that the group wanted to show respect for his former school.

“Since we were together all week it was something that we could go and do together in support of the situation,” Houghtaling said.

The following Sunday after his death, about 300 people gathered around the painted Rock for a candlelight vigil in his memory.

“This kind of became the memorial for him,” Houghtaling said. “We really just wanted to show our support for him and his family.”

After the prayers and tears were shed, friends continued to linger around the Rock, which is usually covered in vivid colors and represents the more cheerful parts of Kent State. It has been more than two weeks since the Rock has been repainted, which is unusual.

“It makes me happy that no one has touched it,” Houghtaling said. “I’m sure someone will paint over it at some point, but whoever does it, I think will be hard for them to do because of what they will be covering up.”

Houghtaling is hoping the Rock will remain untouched for a few more weeks.

“Out of respect for the loss of a fellow student and friend to many, I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” said Kaci Overman, senior early childhood education major and Alpha Phi sorority member.

The original painters

When fraternities and sororities do get back into the habit of painting the Rock, Greek letters are sure to cover the boulder once again.

“We usually only paint the Rock during recruitment in the fall, Greek Week in the spring, or if some girls just get together and feel like going out and doing something fun,” said Megan Reed, senior health care administration major and Alpha Phi sorority member.

Nicole Kotlan, a 1997 Kent State graduate and member of the former local sorority Phi Gamma Pi, remembers painting the Rock with her sorority.

Phi Gamma Pi would paint it to welcome the new group of active members, before formal, Songfest, during Greek Week or to welcome alumni back to campus.

“The Rock was a tradition, a great way to display your pride in your organization,” Kotlan said in an e-mail interview.

Kotlan said her sorority never planned times to paint with other groups or organizations.

“At times, you might be painting the Rock as the previous painters has just left,” she said. “Very messy.”

These days, during big events like recruitment and Greek Week, there are designated times for individual chapters to paint the Rock.

Dag Roshaven, a 1997 Kent State alumnus, said his fraternity, Sigma Nu, would paint it whenever they saw another fraternity’s letters on it.

“We would smear Vaseline on there to prevent another fraternity or sorority’s paint from sticking on the Rock after us,” Roshaven said.

Apparently the Vaseline didn’t work as well as Roshaven thought, as the Rock continued to be painted almost nightly.

Kotlan said she wonders whether the boulder has grown in size after all the layers of paint.

One student decides to drill for density

Curtis Eulberg, a 1998 Kent State graduate and member of Delta Chi, disliked the speculation from his fraternity brothers about the thickness of the layers of paint on the Rock and said he wanted to find the answer for himself.

“In Fall 2007, I grabbed my hammer-drill to find out for sure,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Eulberg drilled holes on several sides of the Rock and said he was disappointed with the results.

Eulberg concluded the paint on the Rock was only about 3/4 inch at the most.

“The layers of paint on the Rock are a symbol of the folk history of Kent State,” he said. “I will admit having six inches of paint or more on the Rock certainly makes a better folktale.”

Kent State geology teaching fellow Christina Robins said the layers of paint really don’t contribute much in terms of its overall size.

“Each layer of paint is very thin, so it takes a significant amount of layers on the Rock to add any depth or size,” Robins said.

A graduate student in Florida took measurements of paint thickness and found each layer of paint is between .003 and .008 inches thick.

This means it would take about 200 coats of paint to increase the Rock by 1 inch, not to mention that it continues to chip and peel.

Robins said the front of the Rock most likely has a much thicker paint coating than the back, since more people concentrate on the side visible to the street.

“Rumor was, the Rock was significantly smaller before everyone started painting it, but sadly, only an urban legend,” Roshaven said.

Controversies on the Rock

Kent State groundskeepers have even contributed to the painting of the Rock, but only when objectionable material needs to be covered.

The administration has only ordered a painting of the Rock just once in the past six years, which was this fall.

Two groundskeepers covered the boulder in yellow paint and spray painted their initials in white. It only lasted about three hours before being covered by fraternity letters.

In March 2001, to coincide with the creation of the first gay fraternity on campus, someone painted the Rock with obscene drawings and anti-gay graffiti.

The painting of the Rock, targeted toward Delta Lambda Phi, was all pink with derogatory comments and stick figure illustrations.

Delta Lambda Phi’s founding president, Todd Mashlan, received a call from one of his fraternity brothers, Eric Van Sant, who told him about the painting.

But the derogatory comments and illustrations didn’t last long.

“The Rock had been painted over by the time I got the news,” Mashlan said in an e-mail interview.

Van Sant organized a painting party to cover it, but not before taking pictures of the offensive material for the chapter archives.

Mashlan said he never found out who painted the Rock, and Delta Lambda Phi declined to file any sort of grievance with the Interfraternity Council due to lack of evidence.

Besides covering the obscene material in 2001, Delta Lambda Phi continued to paint the Rock at least after every pledge class induction.

Who hasn’t painted the Rock yet?

President Lester Lefton said he has not had a chance to paint the Rock during his time here.

“Maybe I’ll sneak out and paint it at midnight sometime,” Lefton said.

Robins has never had the chance to paint the Rock either.

“If I did paint the Rock, I would paint it to look like an actual rock – a granite,” Robins said.

Alyse Papania, senior applied communication studies major and Delta Zeta sorority member, said painting the Rock isn’t just for Greeks.

“It’s just a fun thing to do,” Papania said. “It’s always interesting to see who paints what on the Rock. It’s a great campus tradition and something fun to do whether you are Greek or not.”

Contact features correspondent Kristyn Soltis at [email protected].