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The Rock in 1970


The Rock in 2013


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History of "The Rock" at Hollins

In this fall 1995 Hollins magazine article, Karen Adams M.A. '93, M.A. '00, M.F.A. '10 explains how this beloved college icon changed from an ordinary hunk of shale to Hollins’ own brand of stone-age communication.

Rock of Ages

Hollins magazine, fall 1995


Imagine that you have been buried peacefully in Virginia soil for four hundred and fifty million years and one day you are wrenched out of the ground unceremoniously by an excavation crew and thrust into the sunlight. Few of us would take such disruption lightly. One would have to be a rock, as they say.


Admirably, the Rock - Hollins' shale monolith that rests on the lawn outside Dana Science Building - has quietly endured exposure for thirty years. Moreover, it has for thirteen of those years patiently allowed its face and backside to be painted time and time again with a variety of slogans, announcements, admonitions, and proclamations. It has become, in effect, the beloved billboard of Hollins. And no glacier or earthquake could have prepared this modest, unassuming lump of stone for the pressure of sudden celebrity.


For this is where we take the pulse of the college. The Rock reflects Hollins' political climate ("Remember to Vote," "Celebrate Diversity") and its attitude ("Maggie Rocks," "Leaders Start Here"). It honors birthdays ("Happy 21st, Ellen and Pilar") and triumphs ("Fencing State Champions '95," "Welcome Back, National Champ Kat Horton"). It declares territorial rivalries ("Senior: One of Higher Rank"), offers promotional messages ("Come Visit Hollins"), lists the calendar of events ("Happy Tinker Day," "Basketball, 7 p.m. "), and serves as a greeter ("Welcome Parents"). It has even been covered with chicken tracks in honor of the creative writing reunion. Once it was simply labeled "Rock."


According to Molly Meredith '84, associate director of admissions, the Class of '82 is credited with first painting the Rock. It began as a harmless bit of fun when Wayne and Pam Reilly (professor of political science and director of institutional research, respectively), who were advisors to the Class of '82, suggested that it would be amusing if each member of the senior class painted her name on the Rock. When, afterward, some folks on campus disagreed, the Rock was washed clean.


Nonetheless, another "instant tradition" was born. One by one, students sneaked up to the Rock in darkness and secrecy to emblazon their special messages. Over and over the Rock was washed and painted, washed and painted. At some point students began using enamel paint and from then on the messages were permanent - until they were painted over. And while it is considered by many to be the "Senior Rock," its ownership is still hotly debated.


Yet under all those layers of paint and emotion, the Rock's history goes back much further. Professor emeritus of chemistry and champion of rocks Betty Gushee, who first adopted the Rock, says that it was dragged with some difficulty from the bowels of the earth when the Dana basement was dug in 1965. (It was pulled from the very spot that her office,Dana 6, would eventually occupy.)


Gushee remembers the day it appeared. "A look at fresh, unweathered rock, particularly shale, is hard to get, so occasionally I happened over from Pleasants, where the natural sciences were housed then, to look at the excavation. One day while I was there a backhoe was having a hard time moving an unusually large hunk of rock to be loaded onto a truck, so I asked the operator to leave it [on the lawn] as a free-standing sample of our native rock. He did, quite gladly, and I used it as a geology teaching tool for a number of years."


What did it look like in those early days? "It was very pretty," Gushee says. "Dark gray, limey shale - shale containing limestone - with pure white veins of calcium carbonate running through it." The veins were frequently sprinkled with crystals.


Gushee once wrote, "Long protected from the elements and hidden from view, it is a specimen of the Liberty Hall Formation, a sedimentary rock formation widely deposited in the Appalachians ... in Ordovician time - older than Hollins, older than Liberty Hall [now known as Washington and Lee University, where the rock was first identified], older than humankind or the Atlantic Ocean .... "


This ancient ribbon of bedrock runs all the way down to Birmingham, Alabama. It peers out occasionally - in spots such as the hillside above the stream that runs behind Turner and along Carvin Creek - and is worth noticing, for this is the foundation on which Hollins College is built.


And what does the Rock itself make of all this fuss? Through all the commotion, it remains stoic and steadfast, as rocks often do, like a great turtle sleeping in the sun. Perhaps it has come to enjoy its new life. Perhaps in the next millennium there will be a whole family of rocks perched on the lawn, hauling themselves up for a look around, remembering the whole history of Hollins and just waiting for the opportunity to tell it.


At the time of this article’s publication, Karen Adams was coordinator of news and publicity and a contributing editor to Hollins magazine.