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Buzzkill: Why Georgia Tech is deflating a Maryland high school’s spirit

Math teacher Rob Hyman has been part of a seven-year effort to get the Damascus High School mascot, a hornet, painted on the water tower overlooking the football field. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Victor Furnells and Rob Hyman thought they were this close.

In April, after seven years of campaigning and cajoling, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) had finally agreed to paint the mascot of their beloved Damascus Swarmin' Hornets atop the water tower that looms over this northern Montgomery County town of 15,000.

Furnells, 54, a sales executive with a national marketing company, saw the mascot project as a way to boost civic pride, honor the state champion high school football team and beautify what some residents have long regarded as an eyesore.

When WSSC said the hornet could be added this summer, during the first scheduled repainting for the 170-foot-tall tower since it went into service in 1990, Furnells offered to raise the extra $15,000 it would cost.

"Visitors coming to and through Damascus will easily recognize the water tower and immediately know they are in the proud town of Damascus, MD," Furnells wrote on after the agency said yes. Within a month, boosters had raised nearly all the money in small donations from Damascus residents.

Then came the buzzkill, in the form of Georgia Tech.

The Atlanta-based university so zealously protects the trademark integrity of its own mascot, a yellow jacket named Buzz, that alumni must fill out a "grave marker permission form" before the insect can join them in their eternal rest.

A couple of years ago, Georgia Tech insisted that Damascus modify the hornet on its uniforms and marketing material so that it didn’t look so much like Buzz.

The high school slapped a “D” on the bug’s chest and changed the color scheme from Georgia Tech’s black and yellow to yellow and green. Then Montgomery County Public Schools signed a licensing agreement with Georgia Tech that spelled out in granular detail where and how the mascot could appear, including on helmets, hallway signs and the school paper, the Buzz.

The water tower was not mentioned in the legal document, one of more than 400 such agreements that Georgia Tech has signed with high schools across the country.

Concerned about placing the agreement in jeopardy, the school system general counsel, Josh Civin, contacted Georgia Tech in mid-May after learning that WSSC was ready to paint the mascot.

The university said the tower was a no-fly zone for the Damascus hornet.

So the effort was placed on hold, for fear that a few strokes of green and yellow paint could mean the cancellation of the pact — and the end of the Damascus mascot altogether.

Swarmin' Hornets fans, who have watched their football team win two straight Maryland 3A state championships, were steamed.

“It’s petty bullying by a big institution that’s trying to stop a small town from celebrating its football team,” said state Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), a former teacher who represents Damascus in Annapolis.

Hyman, a Damascus high school math teacher who has worked closely with Furnells, was more diplomatic.

“I definitely respect Georgia Tech’s right to their property,” said Hyman, 47. “However, I also don’t know whether they really understand that this is a community-building activity in a small town.”

After an inquiry from The Washington Post last week, the university said it would consider allowing the logo, but on its own timetable.

“This case has been referred to the Georgia Tech Licensing and Trademark Committee,” spokesman Lance Wallace said in an email. “It is scheduled to take up this request at its next meeting in August.”

But next month would probably be too late.

WSSC’s tower-painters, who started work several weeks ago, are nearly finished coating the Damascus tower in a fresh layer of powder blue. On Wednesday, the plan is to paint “DAMASCUS” on the side of the tank facing the athletic field, about a half-mile away but easily seen. If the school’s dispute with Georgia Tech is resolved by then, the workers could paint the hornet, as well.

If not, it will be about 2042 before the next scheduled painting.

“After Wednesday, the contractor will be doing cleanup work,” said WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown.

Civin said Friday that he’s trying work something out with the university.

The school system is not a party to the water tower project, which was set to go forward under a separate agreement between the WSSC and the Damascus Sports Association, a volunteer organization that supports local athletics.

Furnells, a former vice president of the association, spent years trying to sell the mascot idea to WSSC, a sprawling agency that oversees nearly 6,000 miles of water pipeline across Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Two of his sons have already graduated from Damascus. A third son plays on the lacrosse team.

At first, the utility was very reluctant. In a 2012 letter to Luedtke and other state lawmakers, then-WSSC General Manager Jerry Johnson said the agency did not want to burden ratepayers with added expenses and that it had allowed logos and town names only on “a very limited” number of elevated storage tanks.

There was the Prince George’s community of Accokeek, which was reluctant to accept a water tank until the utility agreed to have the town name painted on it.

And there was Joint Base Andrews, where the WSSC had to lease land for a storage tank and got a break on the rent in exchange for allowing the Air Force logo — and, after base consolidation, the Marine and Army logos, too.

Then there was the "Earthoid" in Germantown, a spherical tank that the agency consented to have painted so that it resembled a National Geographic globe.

In the letter, Johnson said water towers with school mascots posed a particular problem because they would be “an attractive target” for mischievous teens.

“Climbing a water storage tank could be a very intriguing notion for some young people,” he wrote.

A change in management — Johnson retired in June 2015 — and turnover on the WSSC’s board of commissioners brought a change in attitude, which coincided with the agency’s plans to paint the tower this summer.

The money was raised, the design was finalized, and Furnells and other boosters were looking forward to seeing the mascot on the tower during Friday night games this fall.

Until the lawyers started talking.

“I don’t know why the university is picking on a small town,” Furnells said. “We’re literally at the mercy of Georgia Tech.”

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