The Long (and Short) History of the Senior Paint Wall

What started as a way to keep the campus maintained in the early 20th century has since evolved into vibrant farewell messages every spring.

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By Jim Graham

March is a wonderful time on campus. The winter rains start to recede (well, most years) and the temperature begins to rise as spring approaches (well, most years). March also brings the tradition of the Painting of the Wall, when seniors decorate the wall opposite the mailboxes in Rothwell Center with messages reflecting their challenges and triumphs, give thanks to their parents and friends, and revel in anticipation of their upcoming graduation and futures beyond Richards Gate. In preparation, every winter the wall is painted over in anticipation for the next set of graduates. The tradition continued this year for the Class of 2023. 

It is a 21st-century tradition, but it has roots that stretch back— in various forms—to the 1940s, if not earlier. Within a short time frame, many of the College’s maintenance staff left Mills, which left the College with a shortage of personnel and a large campus that still needed maintenance work. When I was a child growing up on the Mills campus, I heard this was the result of World War II and employees leaving to join the war effort, though other reports indicate it was the result of the Great Depression. In any case, Heyday Playday was born. One day each spring, classes were cancelled, and students, faculty, and staff spent the day cleaning the campus: raking, sweeping, trimming, painting smaller wooden parts of the campus (fences, trash boxes, etc.), and performing other maintenance chores no longer done by the absent maintenance crews. 

That tradition continued until the late 1950s, as the return of a full maintenance staff—and declining interest—lessened the original need. And for a time, Heyday Playday co-existed with an offshoot: Senior Paint Night, which started in 1948 as a competition between the junior and senior classes and continued as graduating students made their literal marks with class colors across campus. 

However, those who were perhaps a bit too enthusiastic also painted items that were off-limits (such as fire hydrants and windows). When the costs of rectifying these mistakes became too great, it was time to pivot elsewhere. 

So, in the early years of the 21st century, Heyday Playday and Senior Paint Night were replaced by the Painting of the Wall. It remains a symbol of the variety, vibrancy, and creativity of our students. It is a reminder that, though a comparatively recent tradition, it has roots that go back more than 80 years. And if there is something on the wall you don’t like (which does happen, very occasionally), all you need to do is wait and it will be gone, replaced with the next year’s expressions of joy, thanks, and enthusiasm for the graduating students’ time at Mills. 

Some almost-graduates pay tribute to faculty and staff members in their paintings. This year, that included Tea Shop stalwart Zhu Qiong “Cindy” Liu and Studio Art Technician Michael Halberstadt, who took these photos.