There’s a spot directly north of Rocky Mountain College near the top of the Rimrocks that holds a special place in the hearts of the RMC community.
Students in the earlier days of the four-year private college would climb a path up to the spot to hold a silent religious service at the beginning and the end of the school years. They’d meet at a spot now marked by a wire sculpture on a concrete pedestal, nicknamed the Jesus statue, where a white cross once stood.
On Saturday, more than a dozen students, staff, alumni and community members gathered to spruce up that part of the Rims, now marred by graffiti, glass, discarded hypodermic needles and other trash. Even though it’s public land, the college wants to keep the area clean.
“We want to create a sense of pride and ownership that this is ours to do,” said the Rev. Kim Woeste, RMC chaplain. “And because of the history of Rocky Mountain College, there is that connection with what this represents spiritually to a lot of alumni.”
Woeste organized the morning event with Jill Washburn, Rocky’s director of community involvement.
Some of the students who helped out walked up a path, which contains stairs early Rocky students carved into the Rimrocks. Many of the volunteers are members of the school’s Environmental Club.
Their work was directed by Chris Waite, volunteer coordinator for Billings Parks, Recreation and Public Lands. Waite brought along three generator-powered grinders to help erase the graffiti, as well as wire brushes with a spray to remove the paint from more delicate spots.
Dust floated into the air as a trio of students blasted away the painted multi-colored words and symbols. Other volunteers carried buckets to collect refuse left behind by visitors.
Before the volunteers got started, Woeste shared the history she knew about that part of the Rims. The concrete base, she said, was put in place by the class of 1956.
Old photos taken either from the Rims or the campus directly below show the white cross on the Rims for many years. There’s some speculation that it burned down.
Another historical tie exists between the Rims and the school, Woeste said.
“When many of the stone buildings for Rocky Mountain College were built, they were quarried at this area directly under here,” she said. “The student stone masons, as part of their financial aid, helped quarry the rocks and build the buildings.”
Daniel Parod, director of alumni relations, said the service of silence began under the leadership of then-President Earnest Eaton in 1914, in response to the start of World War I. It also gave the students the chance to take in the beauty of the valley below.
A service was held both at the start and the end of the year.
“They would have a sermon focused on trying to pull together everything they’d learned,” Parod said. “After, they’d hike down in silence and do commencement.”
Pete Taylor, who graduated from Rocky in 1983 and is a member of the college’s board of trustees, lent a hand on Saturday and also shared a little history.
“The first time I remember seeing the Jesus statue was in the mid-1990s, when I was riding my bike up here,” he said. “Suddenly I was, ‘wait, what is that?’ ”
Taylor, who also worked in the admissions office in the early 1990s, would pick up visiting students at the airport and make his first stop on top of the Rims.
“I would bring them here just to kind of point out the Rocky steps, and also because you get a great view of the campus,” he said. “I’d point out the buildings.”
Gabriel Aponte, a sophomore at Rocky from Venezuela and member of the Environmental Club, crouched down to grind graffiti off the sandstone Rims. He paused for a moment to tell why he volunteered.
“It’s a community service that we’re really happy to be doing,” Aponte said. “It’s enjoyable, and it’s fun to get to play with power tools.”
Aponte has heard lots of stories about Rocky Mountain in its early days, and said it’s hard to sort out what’s true and what isn’t. It was nice, he said, to see a bit of that history on Saturday.
“It’s really interesting to me when I hear about other students in the past and what their stories must have been like, compared to what we’re doing now,” he said.
Kelsey Crona, a sophomore from Estes Park, Colo., also a member of the Environmental Club, runs a lot on the Rims as part of the college’s cross-country team.
“It’s kind of nice to be able to clean it up because it’s one of the nicer places where you can see Billings,” she said.