Tim Steller: Big 'A' will revert to white, so let's color this battle over

2013-04-14T00:00:00Z 2013-04-14T21:13:16Z Tim Steller: Big 'A' will revert to white, so let's color this battle overTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Ten years ago the passionate debate over the newly launched Iraq War found a touchstone in Tucson - the giant "A" on Sentinel Peak.

American forces invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, and four days later someone protested by painting the "A" black.

That unleashed a couple of weeks of testy local argument, before the Tucson City Council agreed on April 7, 2003, to have the "A" painted red, white and blue to honor American troops until "the current conflict in the Middle East is resolved."

We can't say the Middle East conflict is resolved - in retrospect, that phrase sounds pretty naive. But I think it's fitting that 10 years later, with American troops out of Iraq if not Afghanistan, we can declare our own Battle of "A" Mountain over.

The city has decided to return the "A" to its traditional white.

The decision, made by the city administration, not the council, ends years of sporadic discussions, which sometimes cropped up around UA-ASU games or St. Patrick's Day, about how to repaint the "A." Those are the times when people tend to surreptitiously climb the peak to paint the letter in maroon or green.

In fact, that's what's prompting the decision now. Around St. Patrick's Day, someone partially painted the "A" a light green shade that one Sentinel Peak visitor described to me last week as "a little minty."

City Attorney Mike Rankin said the 2003 council decision was just a motion that passed, not an ordinance, meaning the council doesn't need to do anything to allow the "A" to be repainted in a different color.

"Now we're just going to paint it white and take it from there," city Parks and Recreation Director Fred Gray said Thursday, citing instructions from the City Manager's Office.

I imagine the council members are relieved they don't have to take another stand on this issue. It seems relatively insignificant but, as the 2003 experience showed, it can turn emotional quickly.

The prospect doesn't sit well with everybody, including former City Councilman Fred Ronstadt, who helped spearhead the move to have the city keep the "A" red, white and blue. (Actually, Ronstadt calls the color pattern "blue, white and red" because the blue is supposed to cover the top of the A. If red is on top, that represents the French flag, he explained.)

In an email, he told me "There are folks from Tucson deployed all over the world, thousands of airmen and members of other branches of the military, and as they fly out of the Old Pueblo, or fly back in, the colors of our country are set out to remind them of our support for them and their families who remain behind. It's a small gesture which I believe has deep significance for those who protect us and our treasured freedoms."

BeverlyKay Borum, one of the founders of Tucson Area Marine Moms, made a similar argument.

As to painting the "A" white again, she said, "I don't think that's very patriotic."

I asked both when they would say the "A" should return to white.

"When all of our troops are home from any conflict," Borum said.

Ronstadt said he'd just as soon keep the A "blue, white and red" for good. It's a bit of a surprising perspective from a man who hosts a weekly radio show - the "Fred and Jeff Show" on KQTH, 104.1 FM at 11 a.m. Sundays - that often celebrates Tucson traditions.

"While traditions are important, it doesn't mean those traditions can't be modified or changed," he said.

Plenty of people in Tucson are ready to return to the older tradition of a white "A." Retired Air Force Maj. Vern Pall, a member of the Military Officers Association of America and the city's Veterans Affairs Committee, told me, "It was white when I graduated from the U of A, and I think it should be white today."

"It's more visible from a distance, it's cheaper and it's easier to do," he added.

Indeed, Gray confirmed that a whitewash costs about $4,000 while repainting in red, white and blue costs $5,000 to $7,000. The city contracts the work out.

There's also the argument made by Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who was elected in 2005.

"Clearly, it's a community canvas," she said. "Reverting it back to white makes that canvas available to folks over time."

I sympathize with the perspectives of military families, as well as of the soldiers and airmen themselves. I imagine it could be uplifting to see the "A" painted in Old Glory's colors on the way to or from a war zone. But it's not as if the absence of a red-white-and-blue "A" is harmful.

Sentinel Peak walker Jack Stewart, 71, put it well when I interviewed him at the foot of the "A" last week: "We can show patriotism some other way."

On StarNet: See more photos of "A" Mountain in its many different hues over the years at azstarnet.com/gallery

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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