Paint the Town as Ne’er Before: Modern History of the Wesleyan Carillon – Part 2 of 2

Part I: Early History | Part II: Modern History

Image from the Wesleyan Photo Website

Last week, Maya provided us all with a detailed account of the initial acquisition and installation of the first eleven bells now hanging in the tower of South College. Since 1919, however, much of Wesleyan has changed (Wesleyan was then in its “decidedly Methodist” era), and the bell tower has been updated along with it. Our bell tower is now home to twenty-four bells, including the original eleven, elevating it to the status of a carillon. The schedule, repertoire, and ringers of the bells have likewise changed, from the 5:30 A.M. wake up calls of the bells’ youth to the experimental sound installations and Harry Potter theme songs of today.

After the bells’ dedication in February 1919, information about the bell tower all but disappears for a few decades. Little is known about how, when, or by whom the bells were played. In the seventies, John Spencer Camp Professor of Music, Emeritus, Richard Winslow told the Argus that in the past decades the bells had, for the most part, been played with no regular schedule. “It is all a bit whimsical.”

We do know that Elizabeth Townsend Rogers McConaughy, wife of President James McConaughy (1925-45), used to play the bells back in the twenties and thirties. Her grandson, Jim McConaughy ’68, who would later be the first student to play the bells after their restoration in the sixties, recounted her experiences in an email:

“She had stories of playing the bells of Old South College using a peculiar mechanism, perhaps a pneumatic or steam driven device (just kidding about the steam), that consisted of playing a piano like keyboard and then waiting… for anywhere between half a second and maybe two or three, depending on the key, before the clappers struck the bell. This meant that in order to play a simple phrase of notes of equal duration, one actually had to play a highly syncopated and non linear patter on the input mechanism!”

The official Wesleyan bell tower history sheds little light on the mechanism, describing a “Rube Goldberg-esque arrangement” of “an electric keyboard attached to a series of bellows, pulleys, and cables to move the bells’ clappers through the use of forced air ducts.”


#thisiswhy? (Because.)

Students also rang the bells. In a letter written to the university in 2001, Vincent “Vin” Allison ‘ 43 shared fond memories of time spent in the bell tower, including when he asked his sweetheart to marry him.

“The bells were not capable of expressing my joyful response to her answer! The moment was made even more special, however, by the place and the resounding approval above us.”

Vin and his wife Zee were married until her death in 2002. (If you’re wondering if the bell tower has fostered any other romances, just you wait.)

After Allison, there is little record of the bells until the mid-sixties. It seems that by the early sixties, the bells had fallen into disrepair. In early 1966, however, an anonymous donor gave $16,500 towards the repair of the existing bells, as well as the purchase of five more bells. The donation was later revealed to be from none other than then-President Victor L. Butterfield, then in the final year of his presidency, and his wife Kay.

The bells were ordered from the Mears and Stainbank Whitechapel Foundry in London, the same firm which cast the original eleven. (Incidentally, this is the same foundry that cast the Liberty Bell, as almost every Argus article written about the bells in the past 50 years has taken note of. As Wes’s bell history page points out, “not a great endorsement for the foundry, as the bell cracked upon its very first strike in 1752.”)


Akright working in the bell tower, from the November 29, 1966 Argus

Akright working in the bell tower (from the November 29, 1966 Argus)

In February 1966, James Akright, a professional instrument builder, who lived in a log cabin in Berea, Kentucky, began work on the project, testing the pitches of the existing bells and providing Mears and Stainbank with specifications for the new ones. (Akright’s residence was another Argus favorite fact. In the November 10, 1966 edition, Cliff Saxton ’68 went so far as to detail that Akright lived “on “Christmas Ridge,” so nick-named because the porfuse [sic] growth of pine trees provides local residents with an excellent source of Christmas trees.” He also describes a cherry wood pipe organ that Akright built for his own home, adding that he also builds and collects “bowed psalters, 25-string medieval musical instruments.”)

Akright constructed a new mechanism for playing the bells out of rosewood, as well as a practice keyboard, so that prospective bell ringers can learn without most of campus hearing their mistakes. As far as we know, Wesleyan’s are the only rosewood claviers in the world. (Take that, Brown.) Though the bell tower was not yet to house a carillon, Akwright made sure to construct it so that it could–as eventually happened–have the requisite seven bells added. The bell-frame was made of hickory, rather than metal, to give a “mellower tone.” By early 1967, the bells were once again operational, and the bell tower no longer a “chamber of horrors,” as Akright quipped to the New York Times.

Jim McConaughy ’68 was the first student ringer in the “modern age.” In a letter to the university, he recalled being taught to play the bells by Akright, then being hired to play for about $10 a week. He would, he said, have played them for free! It seems that in the years immediately following Akright’s restoration, at least, Wesleyan made good use of the bells. Shortly after the installation, Tom Ross ’67 composed a piece for chimes and trombone; it was performed with the trombone player leaning out of the bell tower window. The bells were also played, at first regularly and later only for Christmastime and commencement, by Olin’s Public Service Librarian, Brian Rogers, who may be one of, if not the, only Wesleyan bellringer to be trained in campanology, having taken a course at Alfred University.

The early seventies appeared to see another lull in bell history, until one day during the fall semester of 1973, curious then-freshman Susan Horwitz ’77 wandered up to the bell tower. The very next day, she went to the current Music Department Chairman, Richard Winslow and asked for permission and a key to the tower. She taught herself to play on the practice keyboard, and by spring, she was playing twenty-minute concerts during lunchtime on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The 1974 Argus article detailing this story (titled “‘That Ringing in My Ears’ Found Caused by Wes Camp[a]nologists”) ends with a plea for more ringers, asking “…after all, how often does someone ask you to ring their chimes?”

this is conducted by Vincent Allison aka the original bell tower Casanova how cool is that

Professor Winslow’s hopes were, it seems, realized in the next few years. Some sources indicate that the bells were played regularly through the seventies. Already, the bellringers’ repertoire had begun to resemble its present-day incarnation, with Beach Boys and the Talking Heads played alongside hymns and an altered version of the alma mater. The sixteen bells, ironically, lacked the range to play either the fight song or “Ring The Bells of Old South College.” Playing popular music as well as sacred and school songs was, however, a long-standing tradition, with classics like “Auld Lang Syne,” “My Bonnie,” and “Blue Bells of Scotland” played at the dedication ceremony for the original bells. (Fun fact: that evening, they played this and this back-to-back.)

Interestingly, though the 1974 Argus was clear that there were “no Quasimodos running hunchbacked around a bat-filled belfry,” by 1980, at least some of the bellringers were indeed referring to themselves as Quasimodos. According to James Boylan ’80, in an article written for the alumni magazine, secrecy was crucial for the “small cult of Quasimodos,” one of whom was quoted:

“Ringing bells, you see, is a very public thing to do. The only way we can justify doing such an ego-motivated thing is by not telling anyone who we are. Anyway, everyone likes a mystery.”

Oh yeah, February 20, 1990 Argus, gotta love those “road trips” to England (article titled “Occasional High Notes Ring From South College” yeah they do)

The status of the bells in the eighties was yet another mystery. In his 1980 article, Boylan noted that the bells were “no longer rung on a daily basis,” which he attributed to a lack of bellringers and new limits imposed on when they were allowed to play. The noise of the bells, “‘disturbing’ to those who might be trying to work in North and South College,” was restricted to lunchtime and after 5 P.M. We were unable to find any more concrete information about the bells or their ringers until 1990, at which point the bells had apparently not been rung since President William M. Chace‘s inauguration in 1988. Another resurgence was soon to come, though. By November of 1991, Dan Wulf ’92 was playing for about a half hour every day, usually around 5:15 P.M. He played “whatever [came] to mind. Beatles, Sesame Street, Muppets, Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, a Gregorian chant, classical pieces…” as well as made up pieces and, on at least one occasion, for a wedding at the Memorial Chapel. Wulf didn’t initially know about the element of secrecy, but was training underclassmen during the winter of his senior year, with hopes of resurrecting the Quasimodos. Roughly every five years, Wulf returns for his class reunions, where he accompanies Professor Emeritus Peter Frenzel to play the bells once more.

Barlow also wanted to "clean up the messy tower": another endeavor that seems to have been unsuccessful, as anyone who has visited can attest to (photo from Wesleyan's bell history page)

Barlow also wanted to “clean up the messy tower”: another endeavor that seems to have been unsuccessful, as anyone who has visited can attest to (photo from Wesleyan’s bell history page)

After Wulf’s graduation, the bells fell (more or less) silent once again. A September 1997 Argus article featured quotes from two bellringers, Simon Strange ’98 and Peter Sax ’00, who, along with Professor of Music John Barlow, were looking for interested students–no musical experience necessary–to form a core group of bellringers. Though Strange had, according to the article, two years of experience, we couldn’t find any other information about the regular practice of bellringing in the mid-90s; at any rate, the effort to form a new group was not successful that year. (From Sax came only the complaint: “No one told me I was supposed to keep myself anonymous.”)

From this point on, the history of our bell tower becomes much clearer, thanks to “chief scrollkeeper,” great storyteller and primary source Professor of German Studies, Emeritus, Peter Frenzel. According to Professor Frenzel, the only time the bells were rung consistently was at commencement, when the task was usually delegated to a graduate music student. In 1998, however, Frenzel, then the commencement marshall, was unable to find anyone to play the bells. He decided to do the job himself, first learning to play the bells “passably.” On the day of the ceremony, he played the bells and then ran up to the top of Foss Hill to lead the procession down to Andrus field. When commencement ceremony ended, he led the procession out and then ran back up the tower’s sixty-seven steps to play the bells once more.

Professor Peter Frenzel with some of the new bells before their installation in 2005 (from the Wes bell history page)

Professor Peter Frenzel with some of the new bells before their installation in 2005 (from the Wes bell history page)

The following fall, Professor Frenzel had the Argus print a small article about the bells, with a yet another request for prospective bellringers. The next day, Holly Schroll ’02, then a freshman, knocked on his office door. Frenzel took her upstairs to the bell tower and gave her one fifteen-minute lesson. Thus, Bell and Scroll (a play on Holly’s name) was born. The other founders include Pete Harvey ’03, Gabe Dillon ’03, and Mariah Klaneski Reisner ’04, who, Frenzel says, is responsible for “risking life and limb” to help collect the archival material with which we researched this article. (Many thanks, Mariah.) Over the years, Bell and Scroll has had anywhere from 4 to 10 members, though activity lapsed somewhat during the time leading up to the conversion into a carillon. Currently, it has 6 members, one of whom gave us some insight into the society’s proceedings. Of the ringer selection process he said, “We basically just choose people who we think would ring and drag them with us.” Once inducted, members are free to be as open (or not) as they would like to be. Some like the air of mystery, others the anonymity. As our source put it: “…it’s really nice to know that, if you fuck up, no one will necessarily know it’s you.” Bell and Scroll is overseen by Professor Frenzel, who gives advice and official access to the bellringers, oversees maintenance of the carillon, and provides interested bloggers/Wes history aficionados with interesting bell-related facts. In the spring 2012 edition of the Wasch Center for Retired Faculty Newsletter, he cheerfully invited anyone interested in the bells to take over his job: “I am looking for a successor (seriously).” (I assume the offer still stands, though I doubt anyone could fill the role quite so well.)

Bell and Scroll can be reached via twitter, where you can (sometimes) see what is being played, as well as make requests and (presumably) speculate about their secret cultish practices.

In the early 2000s, fundraising began with the intent to add (at least) seven bells, thus converting the instrument to a carillon (which must have a minimum of 23 bells) and finally enabling the fight song to be played properly. The funds were sufficient by 2004, despite the campaign running concurrently with (and perhaps in opposition to) a fundraising campaign run by the Development Office. The bells, costing approximately $18,000 each, were ordered not from Mears and Stainbank, but instead from the Royal Dutch Bell Foundry, under the name Petit and Fritsen. They shipped by sea to New Orleans and then by barge to Cincinnati. The Verdin Bell Company fine-tuned them and in September of 2005, installed the eight new bells over the course of three weeks. The inscriptions on the new bells are as follows:

In Memory of David E. Engel ’49

In Memory of Jane Nye Andrus & Maurene Morton Neville

In Honor of the Broker Family

In Honor of Peter & Laurie Frenzel

In Honor of the Bruner Family

In Honor of Peter Harvey ’03

In Honor of Joy Mooney Jenkins

In Honor of the Woodhouse Family

Professor of Physics Fred Ellis reconstructed the practice keyboard, thanks to donations made in honor of Joan W. Miller, MALS ’79, wife of Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics, Emeritus, Richard A. Miller. Though the donations were made by a wide variety of people, with various Wesleyan connections, perhaps the sweetest story is that of the Peter & Laurie Frenzel bell, which was a gift from their friends at their fortieth anniversary surprise party. The couple was presented with donations and warm wishes for “Happy Tolling, many a Jolly Bell Party in Future, and in All Respects a Superabundant Anniversary Dear.” Though Frenzel dislikes surprises, he was touched.

The new bells were dedicated on November 5, 2005, on an “absolutely beautiful fall night,” reminisced Frenzel. Four songs were played: “South College Shuffle” by Ernest Toller (Frenzel’s “bell-name”), “Twenty Four Bells” composed for the occasion by Professor Neely Bruce, “Happy Birthday” arranged by Professor Richard Winslow, and everyone’s favorite, “Ring the Bells of Old South College” by P.P. Bliss. A joyous occasion indeed, as it was presumably the first time the bells of Old South College could play their own song properly. President Doug J. Bennet gave a speech, a draft of which we perused, finding this illuminating comment.

“The bells are played more regularly now and with more skill than in my days as a student. Back then, they were sometimes played spontaneously by irresponsible boys motivated by party weekends at an all male Wesleyan.”

Bet you’ve never ended up in the bell tower on a Saturday night. Anyone seeking even more information about the installation and dedication of the last eight bells can find it in this marvelous Wes-created video or, even better, in the DVD Wesleyan released about it, which Frenzel describes as “the most excruciatingly boring thing.” You can find a single copy of it here on Amazon, for $124.59.

obviously, the squirrel just wanted this view (from the Bell&Scroll twitter)

obviously, the squirrel just wanted this view (from the Bell&Scroll twitter)

You may still be wondering: what actually goes on in the bell tower? The answer, apart from the obvious bellringing, may surprise you. The bell tower has a fair amount of surrounding lore, with varying amounts of supporting evidence. One story we heard involved an intruder: a squirrel, finding its way in through the open window, disappeared into the desk, never to be seen again. (We’re not sure if this is related to the squirrel from the Twitter saga.)

There’s also this presumably (hopefully?) satirical Argus article.

yes, that is a condom wrapper. yes, it was stuck to a page in the binders of bell tower history kept in the tower room....we don't know

yes, that is a condom wrapper. yes, it was stuck to a page in the binders of bell tower history kept in the tower room.
…we don’t know

The best story, however, might be that of the belfry resident. In the tower room, there is a small door leading to a crawl space, in which one can find about 20 copies of a recording of the bells (Frenzel, apparently, has tons more), a fan, assorted junk and a bed. Legend has it that a grad student once spent an indeterminate amount of time living there, hopefully in the summer.

(<<evidence suggests an element of truth?)

Regardless, the bell tower has seen its fair share of history and will, with any luck, continue to grace us with its peals. Anyone interested in joining Bell and Scroll, finding very cold and cramped housing (but not really), or just appreciating the bells in all their glory can venture up the spiral staircase while the bells are being played.

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3 thoughts on “Paint the Town as Ne’er Before: Modern History of the Wesleyan Carillon – Part 2 of 2

    1. kitab

      Do you have any more information about “Density Peals”? The only thing I can find is a dead YouTube link from Katherine’s blog, but I’d be very interested.


      1. nhcf

        Her MA thesis Stranger Things Happen: Musical Thought and Work is in the library (though I have it out right now) and it has a section on that piece. I’ll return it pretty soon.

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