Kevin J. Worthen, president of the university, spoke at this year’s Commencement Ceremony about the Y on the mountain. This Y stands above our campus and can serve as a reminder to maintain an eternal perspective as we look at the events of our lives.
President Worthen shares the story of why Brigham Young University is represented with just a “Y” on the mountain:
The Y on the mountain has its own inauspicious origins. Its roots trace back to a rivalry between two classes of students only three years after Brigham Young Academy became a full-fledged university—a time when both Brigham Young University and Brigham Young High School shared the same space.
It was not unusual in those days for a class to mark its graduation by leaving symbols on the landscape. In the spring of 1906, the junior class at the high school decided to get a jump on the process and at the same time demonstrate its superiority to the senior class by etching a large ’07 on the mountainside, referring to the year in which they would graduate in the future.
Not surprisingly, upon awakening to that sight, the senior class objected. One contemporary account described the reaction with dramatic flair:
The Student Body . . . sprang to its feet in angry amazement; the whites of its eyes gleamed like lightning. Its generals . . . ran to the four winds with flaming banners, and crying: “Assemble, ye hosts, prepared to fight!”
There then ensued “an all-day mountainside altercation,” with punches exchanged on both sides.
BYU president George H. Brimhall and BY High principal Edwin S. Hinckley assembled a group, and a decision was made to have all the classes join together to put the letters B, Y, and U on the mountainside. The project began with the letter Y to ensure that all the letters would be properly centered on the mountain.
Measurements and calculations were made both on the mountain and at the old Academy Building (which is now the Provo City Library) to make sure the letter would appear centered and proportioned from the perspective of those in the valley. On an appointed day, the work began to construct the Y with lime, rock, and sand. As one participant described it:
The students stood in a zig zag line about 8 feet apart stretching from the bottom of the hill to the site of the Y. The first [person] took the bag of lime, sand, or rocks and carried it 8 feet and handed it to the second [person]. The second carried it another 8 feet and handed [it] to the third [person], and thus the bag went up the hill.
The group started in the early morning with the expectation that the job would be completed by 10 a.m. But the task proved much bigger than the group had thought. By midafternoon some students had fainted and had to be carried off the hill, and it was 4 p.m. before the Y was finally thinly covered. The effort was so exhausting that, in the words of one involved, “no attempt was made to cover the other two letters,” and the Y was left standing by itself.
President Worthen continues by saying:
So one might say that the Y on the mountain is the result of fisticuffs and fatigue. Hardly the kind of motivational origins that one would choose to inspire the heart, notwithstanding the allure of the alliteration. And yet there is in that history, like the somewhat tenuous history of the letter y, two brief interrelated lessons that I offer as my advice to the graduating class today.
He states those lessons as:
First, symbols such as the letter y or the Y on Y Mountain ultimately gain meaning in our lives not so much because of their physical shape or presence but because of what we choose to make of them. Likewise, the meaning of events in our lives will be determined not so much by the events themselves but by how we choose to view and respond to them.
The second lesson, therefore, is that in times when you feel like you have failed, that nothing is going right, and that there is nothing that can be done about it, you can—and I pray that you will—trust God’s remarkable promise that He can make all things work together for the good of those who love Him.
President Worthen closed his remarks by congratulating the recent graduates and offering his desire that we “see hope, optimism, and faith in the future.”
The Y on the mountain has stood now for over a century, reminding the BYU students, alumni, and community of Brigham Young University and what the school represents. We add our hope that the Y will continue to remind us of the good already in the world and of the good we each can add to the world through our optimism and faith.
You can find President Worthen's full remarks here.