The Night the “A” Blew Up!

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Originally published August 6, 2010 – Those who were in the vicinity of the downstream Town Lake dam bladder when it exploded on a muggy July 20th Tuesday evening will have a story to tell for years to come.

That got me thinking about other Tempe town-rattling blasts. Fortunately for our city they have been relatively few. There is one, however, that stands out as one of the most memorable earth-shakers in Tempe’s long history.

But given the current state of our society, I am almost reluctant to recount the story lest someone adopt it as a copycat experience.

But it did happen. It is part of our past. And because I trust in your ability to act responsibly, I will relate what I know. But remember the admonition, don’t try this at home … or in Tempe.

Our narrative takes place on the Butte – that for most of our past has been a locus of activity. It centers on a regrettable tradition that has plagued Tempe for more than 90 years.

It reached a dramatic crescendo in 1952. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since 1918 a gigantic man made feature has dominated the Butte. If the latest iteration were placed vertically the structure would be nearly as tall as a six-story building. Constructed of almost 16 inches of concrete it is the iconic “A” that has graced our mountain for the past 55 years.

Of course the “A” represents Arizona State University. Because of the school’s name changes over the years, it began as an “N” for Normal – the Tempe Normal School of Arizona’s nickname in 1918.

Assembled from whitewashed river rock hauled up from the Salt River, it was easy to transform the “N” into a “T” in 1926 when the school was renamed Tempe State Teachers College.

The rock was rearranged once again – this time into an “A” when the institution became Arizona State Teachers College.

And so it remained until that fateful day – September 16, 1952 – when under the cover of darkness at 2:08 in the morning virtually all of Tempe was dynamited awake by what the Tempe Daily News described as “thunderous blasts” that obliterated the bar of the “A.”

After an investigation, it was determined that students from “a rival college” were to blame for the prank. While never identified, everyone knew it could only have been pulled off by the ASTC’s archrival – the University of Arizona.

That damage was so significant that plans were made for a more permanent replacement. That came in 1955 with the construction of the concrete “A” we see today.

Other than the fact that it has been frequently repainted many hues over the years including U of A colors for the annual homecoming rivalry it has remained intact for 55 years.

Will we ever know the perpetrators of this calamity? Not unless, after all this time, someone steps forward to take responsibility. Anyone care to fess up?

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