No, it wasn’t some ancient form of communication. The toilet paper was a slow-developing ritual of rambunctiousness gradually granted immunity from legal tsk, tsk, tsks because hey, Auburn won, who cares?
But the questions of legality (or at the very least propriety) of rolling the corner technically only completely disappeared 15 or so years ago. It sounds straight up insane today, but there was actually a brief local ban on rollings in the late 1980s—”litter” they called it—and despite the T-shirts and trademarks, certain elements of the university, the ones dealing with the practical, cleanup issues, were still wanting to do away with the tradition as late as 1997.
And the tiger paw at Toomer’s Corner? The one you’ve driven over for as long as you can remember, that’s so inseparable from the corner’s modern aesthetic that it’s being permanently penciled into the pavement?
It cost the guys who first painted it a night in jail. Or at least at the jail.
“I’ll never forget using that first coat of paint. There was no going back. We’re painting the middle of Toomer’s Corner, and this is not coming up now. There’s no way to throw a bucket of water on it. It’s done, we’re in it now.”
That’s Frank Parsons–Butch to his friends back in the day–remembering his leading role in what both state and local authorities were briefly tempted to consider less a spontaneous expression of school spirit (as he’d hoped) and more an act of criminal mischief, or maybe destruction of property. There were several things they could have gone with, really.
Parsons graduated from Auburn University in 1990 with a Bachelor’s degree, and with a Master’s in 1992. Today he’s the vice president for student life and dean of students at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. In 1989, Parsons was the chairman of the Auburn SGA’s spirit committee, which helped organize pep rallies, throw up decorations — just general spirit stuff like that, just like it sounds. When the Plainsman needed a quote about the 60,000 orange and blue shakers the SGA ordered for the 1989 Iron Bowl, they went to Butch. He was that guy that year.
The Spirit Committee was responsible for painting the track of tiger paws that stretched from the I-85 exit ramp all the way to stadium. You remember them.
“It was just a neat little way of telling the world that when you get off that exit you were in Tiger Country,” Parsons says.
They did it every summer before fall quarter. They’d round up a crew in a couple of pickups and head out super late at night, or super early really (4 a.m.-ish) to avoid traffic. It was all strictly above board, of course. They’d get a fancy letter of permission from Montgomery every year. It was just a formality, but everything thing still had to be official, by the books. There was a certain kind of highway-grade paint they had to use, and a strictly specified route, a route that did not include Toomer’s Corner. But, you know… why shouldn’t it? Especially when we’re young and in college and it’s late and there’s all this leftover paint, five gallons at least! That’s what Parsons says he and the nine or so other bulletproof Spirit Committee boys in the back of the pickups were wondering as they wrapped up their work Sun, August 19, 1989 with dawn maybe an hour or so away.
“As the night went on, there was talk about trying to do something with more of a splash,” Parsons remembers. “Something to get more attention.”
But what exactly?
Nathan Levy, a committee man, can’t remember exactly who first suggested it.
“But I do remember a very, very short debate and then decision to paint the world’s largest tiger paw right in the middle of Toomer’s.”
As Bryan Schreiber puts it, “It was like, ‘why the hell not?’”
They scouted the area. Downtown was dead. The traffic lights were flashing yellow. There wasn’t a single car around. They hadn’t seen one in a while, not even a cop car.
“I may be wrong about this,” Parsons says, “but I think we caught the Auburn police in a shift change. There was no traffic at all for about 20 minutes, maybe a little longer, believe it or not.”
So absolutely zero traffic, and it was still pitch black outside. It was around five. The sun wouldn’t rise till around six. They parked in front of what was then Central Bank, the one with the clock. They hopped out of the trucks and went full speed. They swept off the intersection.
They had stencils for the little paws, but, no, not a giant paw. So Kevin Boyett got the nod for a design. He was an architecture major. He knew how to draw.
“I actually outlined the original tiger paw,” Boyett says. It was large, circular-ish pad with four smaller circles for toes, 20 x 20 feet. “Then everyone started filling it in.”
The rollers made it easy.
“We got it all painted pretty quickly,” Boyett says. “We we worried about people driving over it. We didn’t want cars to to mess it up.”
That’s where the pizza boxes came in; they’d scarfed Dominoes earlier. They grabbed them from the back of Parsons’ truck and started fanning as fast as they could. No one wanted orange skid marks all over the place. It worked. It was dry. Everything was going like clockwork. They even had time, and the paint, for another coat.
“In the moment, you’re thinking this must be meant to be,” Parsons says.
And then…you know… in another moment, the cops drive by.
Levy, who says the caper made for the best night of his life as an Auburn student, remembers one officer cruising by not long after they started, accepting their uh-just-working-for-the-SGA excuse, and just rolling with it. “The first officer left the scene and, honestly, we thought that we were fine.”
Schreiber remembers the first brush with the law (ha!) not coming until toward the end–a couple of officers, just checking it out, impressed, smiling even, as everyone tried to look nonchalant. But a few minutes later, they were back. More of them. Lights flashing. No more smiles. That mostly matches Boyett’s recollection.
Parsons, though, just remembers the fuzz coming once, right toward the end.
“I recall the officers coming up, parking, looking in amazement. We were actually out there directing traffic,” he laughs. “I’m sure that was a major concern. Here are some 19 and 20-year-olds directing traffic. They were just stunned.”
Then they started asking questions.
Parsons stepped up and tried to look in charge, tried to look like how a Spirit Committee Chairman just trying to do his job should look.
Yes, officers, what seems to be the problem?
What are y’all doing?
Oh, just adding a little more school spirit here at Toomer’s Corner.
Why wasn’t this cleared with us? Who gave you permission? Do you actually have permission?
Um, well, hang on, let me see…you know, I think it’s probably sort of… hang on….
He went to the truck and rummaged around like he was looking for something that would straighten the whole thing up. He came back empty handed. No papers, no answers.
Everyone remembers that part–Butch trying to fake it. Trying and failing.
When the cop opened the cruiser’s back door… that’s when reality started setting in. This simple, War Eagle wild hair was getting tangled, complicated. But the deed was done. The paint was dry. The sun was coming up.
Regardless of what happened, “we had made our mark,” Parsons says.
Parsons, an Outstanding Young Man of America, and maybe a couple of the others rode with the police. The rest were told to follow them the couple of blocks to the station. They complied. It wasn’t an arrest, per se.
“We didn’t just scoop them up and put them in jail,” Auburn Police Chief Ed Downing told the Plainsman once the news broke. But the words “formal charges” and “possible fines” were being tossed around a lot, too much. They started making as many calls as the cops would let them. Parsons called the president of his fraternity, Sigma Pi Epsilon. He called Grant Davis, Auburn’s assistant dean of student affairs. And he called a lawyer–his Bama grad dad.
“I had a brief conversation with him, he was struggling to understand what was going on. I think he said ‘you should have gone to Alabama,’” Parsons says. “He was like, ‘my son went to the wrong school and now he’s in jail.”
His dad put him in touch with local Auburn lawyer (and Kopper Kettle survivor) Andy Gentry. Conversations were had. Parsons and Co. were released. But the police made sure they knew it wasn’t over, not by a long shot.
What do the City of Auburn and the State of Alabama have in common?
They both, in their various legal dialects, stake a claim to the spirit committee’s canvas; that stretch of College Street is technically a state route. Which means they could both stake a claim to Parsons’ future. And Schreiber’s and Boyett’s and Levy’s and all the rest. Destruction of property, criminal mischief, multiple charges at multiple levels. Criminal records. Tainted resumes. Ruined lives!
“We’re checking with the city engineers and the Highway Department to see if anyone wants to file charges,” Downing told the Plainsman.
“There were three or four lines we had crossed because of the uniqueness of that intersection,” Parsons says.
Of course, that the intersection was now even more unique was their best chance of beating the rap.
“When the sun rose the next day, people started driving through Toomer’s Corner and they loved it,” Parsons said. “It was like, ‘why haven’t we had a tiger paw there before?’ They just thought it had been skillfully done and plotted, and this was just turning things up a notch on school spirit.”
That was, of course, the whole idea, and it’s the logic Grant Davis, the AU administrator who worked the most with the SGA, went with on his goodwill tour of city hall to smooth things over. Yes, he had been beside himself when he got the call, and he gave the committee a stern “MAKE GOOD DECISIONS!” talking to, “but at the end of the day he realized ‘hey, we may be on to something pretty unique here,” Parsons said.
Some remember Auburn mayor Jan Dempsey kind of wanting to take a zero tolerance stance on the paw prank. Parsons doesn’t. At least she didn’t come across that way to him. Just the opposite, actually.
“She came to my aid once the dust started settling,” he says. “She was like ‘I don’t think you should take things like that into your own hands, but at the end of the day, it’s Auburn.”
Exactly–it’s Auburn. The city said keep it. The Highway Department said don’t worry about it.
“The intersection is a downtown college area of slow-moving traffic and (the Highway Department) doesn’t see where it would create a problem,” the Plainsman quoted Parsons as saying a few months later, after the SGA repainted the paw–with permission, and even official traffic control assistance–for the very first time.
“No charges were filed,” he told them, “… it’s turned out to be very positive for the SGA Spirit Committee.”
For Parsons, it also turned out to be profitable.
“Because of all the publicity, I started getting calls to come paint tiger paws on driveways,” he says. “I thought about turning it into a little business. As a matter of fact, I think we did a couple of dozen or so around town… Anders, Dominoes, J&M.”
That got picked up, too. The headline: “Criminal mischief turns into profitable business.”
And it turned into an Auburn tradition. That’s how it happens.
“The next year we went about it the right way and went through the university Student Affairs and got the full support of SGA,” Parsons says. “They improved on the design, did it more to scale, which is to say they actually measured things. Some art department folks eventually got involved.”
Twenty-six years later, the Auburn city engineers got involved. The tiger paw will no longer need to be repainted every year. The design will soon become permanent, formed by the color of the new brick pavers included in the renovated Toomer’s Corner intersection.
What almost earned Parsons a criminal record instead earned him an amazing, enviable Auburn legacy.
“Ninety percent of the pictures you see of Toomer’s Corner, it’s in there,” Parsons says. “To see that, to see something you helped put there, yeah, that’s a neat deal.”
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More Toomer’s Corner History Stuff:
* Rolling Toomer’s BEFORE the game–a lost Auburn tradition
* Toomer’s Corner rollings didn’t start with Punt, Bama, Punt
* Did Auburn students celebrate Bear Bryant’s death by rolling Toomer’s Corner?
* The true story behind the Toomer’s Corner eagle statues