(LANSING STATE JOURNAL) - In a different year, Justin Noye and his fellow pledges from Delta Kappa Epsilon would have been painting the Rock, the 18,000-year-old pudding stone that serves as monument, billboard and soapbox for Michigan State University's campus.
Instead, they were spread out on blankets on the lawn next to it, trying to keep other people from painting it. Not that anyone was trying.
"Because of the Lacey thing, we don't really want that to happen," Noye said. It was Wednesday afternoon. They'd been there since Tuesday night.
Lacey Holsworth was an 8-year-old girl from St. Johns who fought a long battle with cancer. She became a friend and inspiration to the MSU men's basketball team and to center Adreian Payne and to a lot of other people. She died on April 8.
The next day, a group of students repainted the Rock to say "MSU's Princess Lacey."Payne wrote on it, "Love you Lil Sis Lacey. You was the best lil sis I had." Basketball coach Tom Izzo signed it. Hundreds of people signed it.
And it seemed to Noye, and a lot of other people, that it should stay that way.
Editor's note:As of Monday morning, the Rock had been painted with the message "Congratulations graduates, be a hero to someone."
"That has been up there longer than any other one that I can remember, and I've been here almost 15 years," said Fred Barton, coordinator of the Learning Resource Center. His office is on the second floor of Bessey Hall. The Rock is on the other side of Farm Lane, north of the Red Cedar River, clearly visible from his window.
On the day after it was repainted, so many students came to look and take photos and sign their own names, that Barton thought there was some sort of organized event going on. There wasn't — just students gravitating to a monument that had become a memorial.
A memorial that no one seems to want to erase.
"It's likely to last," Barton said. "School gets out in a couple of weeks. We were taking bets. It might last that long."
The rock was gift from the class of 1873. They spent an afternoon excavating it, used a team of 20 oxen to haul it to a spot in the "sacred space" in the center of the north campus, where it promptly sank into the soft earth, possibly with the help of the class of 1874.
It was raised eventually and inscribed "Class of '73." Over time, it earned the nickname "engagement rock" for the sheer number of proposals that happened there.
When students began painting slogans on it amid the campus unrest of the early 1970s, the university's leaders considered it vandalism and sandblasted away the paint. Students kept painting it. By the time the Rock was moved to its present location in 1986, the administration had come around.
The informal set of rules about painting the rock go something like this: 1. Anyone can paint it. 2. But they should really only paint it at night. 3. If you're not standing guard over what you painted, see rule 1.
The events and engagements, big games and birthdays memorialized there are seldom memorialized for long. But some paint jobs have lasted longer than others. The American flag painted on the Rock after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was one of them. Wikipedia says the university asked campus groups to refrain from repainting the Rock for a week, but none of the administrators interviewed for this story remember anyone asking.
"I don't remember any monitoring function for the Rock," said Terry Denbow, who came to MSU in 1982 and retired as vice president for university relations in 2011. "I don't even know whose purview it is."
It's not university officials suggesting that the Rock should remain a tribute to Lacey. Detroit News columnist Tony Paul did. "Who could paint over this?" he asked in a column written two days after her death.
But the question is more properly how we find a balance between memorializing a girl who died too young but lifted up a team and a community while she lived and acknowledging the quotidian details of thousands of other lives. And whether trying to do so somehow cheapens our collective grief.
Jon Anthony has as clear a sense as anyone of the effort and paint bestowed on the rock over the past few decades.
As an art graduate student in 2011, he took something like a biopsy from the side of the rock, a slice that exposed layer upon layer upon layer of paint, which he then tried to index.
"I was taking people's passions and kind of flipping them on their side," he said, "removing those messages and abstracting those ideas."
His first response to the notion that the painting could stop here was to reject it out of hand.
"That can't be it," he said, and then reconsidered.
"Traditions have been broken before," he said. "The rock sat for almost 100 years unpainted because it was a gift from the class of 1873. It was kind of sacred in its own right."
The University Activities Board traditionally paints the rock during MSU's Senior Week. The event, planned weeks ago, is scheduled for Friday.
"We are continuing to assess the situation and will make an appropriate decision as the event approaches," Stephanie Bierlein, assistant manager of the University Activities Office, said Friday in an email.
Alex Everard is only suggesting that the tribute to Lacey remain until the end of the semester. As the campus manager for The Black Sheep, a satirical newspaper, he's taken to Twitter to say as much.
"Given the impact that Lacey has had on the MSU community and given the short amount of time that's left in the semester, there aren't many things that outweigh the message that's on the Rock right now," he said.
Lacey certainly had an impact on him. He wrote a poem for her, and when she replied to him on Twitter, saying she liked it, he decided to write one for her every day and he did. He wrote the ninth one on the day she died and a tenth poem to mourn her.
But he knows the Rock is going to be repainted.
"It's the students' rock," Everard said. "Lacey doesn't live on through the rock. She lives on through all of us."