At the center of the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, where the Diag’s two largest paths cross, lies a bronze block ‘M’ set in granite in the ground. The monument was donated by the University’s class of 1953 as a gift to then University President Harlan Hatcher. During the fall and winter semesters, thousands upon thousands of students, staff and visitors pass the block ‘M’ every day, but few dare to tread on it directly.
“Campus legend has it that if you step on the M you will flunk your first blue book exam, hence the many people who diligently avoid trodding on the marker,” the University’s cultural attraction description says.
Students revere the ‘M’ as an icon of the University, so when construction began on the artifact in early July, they noticed. LSA sophomore Alexis Irlbeck said the construction is necessary, but joked it was alarming.
“For one, I would really hope that none of the construction workers were poor little University of Michigan students working for the summer and having to work that closely to the block ‘M,’” Irlbeck said. “Obviously, it’s a good thing. It’s going to look all nice and brand new, but it is kind of sad that it’s all covered up by construction right now. Hopefully, that is not going to be the case when all the freshmen come in September.”
The construction is being done by outside contractor J. S. Vig Construction and is scheduled to be complete by the time classes begin for the Fall 2019 semester, according to University Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald also told the Daily the project’s total cost is $200,000, half of which is being covered by donor funds.
The project entails replacing the concrete beneath the M as well as the stone surrounding it. In an email press release, the University said the selected stone was chosen to uphold the historical look of the landmark while enhancing its durability.
“The Giallo Veneziano stone material that will be installed matches the existing stone and the current shape and pattern will remain the same,” the release said. “The new stone panels will be considerably thicker and are expected to hold up much better to Michigan’s extensive freeze-thaw cycles.”
Irlbeck works as a Campus Day Leader, showing prospective students around campus in the spring as an ambassador for the University. Irlbeck tells her groups about the block ‘M’ legend by gathering them in a circle around the marker like one would share a story by the campfire.
“What I just tell everybody is not to step on the block ‘M,’ but if you do, there is one way to reverse the curse,” Irlbeck said. “So, I’ll turn around and point at Hatcher.”
Irlbeck then explains to her groups the curse’s only anecdote is if the afflicted runs from the steps of the Hatcher Graduate Library to kiss the pumas on the Biological Sciences Building and run back. The sprint must also happen within the first and last tolls of the Bell Tower at midnight — which is both physically and logistically impossible because the Bell Tower no longer rings after 10 p.m. — and the runner must be naked, which is illegal.
Whenever she tells the story, Irlbeck said she feels like she’s “including” students in the University community.
“Usually, (I get) a lot of laughs. I think people get really into it just because it’s a little campus tradition,” Irlbeck said. “The kids who already knew the story beforehand are mouthing it along with me, like they know the story of the block ‘M.’ They’re tapping on their mom or whatever parent they brought with them like, ‘Hey, I already knew that.’”
University fraternity Theta Xi centers the landmark in their annual charity event, Defend the Diag. Every year for over 15 years, the brothers of Theta Xi take shifts guarding the block ‘M’ from vandals. They do this 24-hours a day for the week leading up to the rivalry football game against Michigan State University.
Kinesiology junior Chase Lee, Theta Xi fraternity secretary, said their efforts are a combination of school spirit and philanthropy.
“We obviously love our school and don’t want anyone to hamper with the ‘M’ itself,” Lee said. “It also is for the Theta Xi national charity, which is MS research and awareness for the MS disease and trying to find a cure for that.”
Lee said he believes the prominent placement of the block ‘M’ lends public interest toward Theta Xi’s cause that whole week. As the brothers guard the landmark, they also solicit donations from the campus community to support the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“It’s a really great way to be public, being in the middle of the Diag,” Lee said. “The Diag is the center of campus, and the middle of it, so, obviously we’re doing it to defend the ‘M.’ School spirit — we don’t want anyone to spray paint it green, but we’re also doing it for a good cause and trying to get some charitable funds out of it.”
Lee said he recalls the ‘M’ being blocked off at points throughout the year due to the cracks in the pavement and uneven surroundings, so he is glad it is receiving renovations now.
“Personally, I’m for preserving a lot of the landmarks that make Michigan what it is,” Lee said. “I think that the ‘M’ is a pretty integral part of those landmarks, so I think it’s great that they can renovate it and keep it up to standard and what it’s been like in the past.”
In addition to the block ‘M’ on the Diag, Lee said he observes that University students are proud to bear that same symbol as they go about their everyday lives.
“At Michigan, I don’t think you can ever be standing in some spot on campus and not see someone in a Michigan shirt or Michigan apparel, so I think the ‘M’ itself is just a living testament to our tradition and our foundation,” Lee said.
Irlbeck believes the block ‘M’ goes hand-in-hand with the whole of the University’s identity.
“Unlike pretty much every other school in the country, we don’t really take our mascot as seriously as we do the block ‘M,’ and when everybody sees the block ‘M,’ they know that it’s the University of Michigan you’re talking about,” Irlbeck said.
Lee and Irlbeck both believe the block ‘M’ on the Diag is a powerful and respected symbol of the University. When he was a young boy, Lee said he had already forged an understanding of that phenomenon.
“I’ve grown up a Michigan fan my entire life,” Lee said. “I’d say, ‘Go Blue’ with my dad every night before I’d go to bed, and so the ‘M’ is just kind of a very visual representation of who we are — our school spirit and our pride. The fact that no one really walks over that is just a testament.”
Irlbeck remembers being introduced to the block ‘M’ when she toured the University as an admitted student herself.
“I got in, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to go, but I at least told my mom, ‘We’ve got to go see it anyway,’” Irlbeck said. “I fell in love with Michigan the second I stepped on campus, but then there was just something really, really special about being around the block ‘M’ and hearing the little sales pitch, basically, being given by my own Campus Day Leader that just made it really special and something that everyone at Michigan was a part of.”