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The Bell Tower through the years
UNC-Chapel Hill landmark has tolled during happy and sad times

By Clifton Barnes

The ringing of the chimes of the Morehead-Patterson Memorial Bell Tower has, at times, been taken for granted by Universary of North Carolina students hustling to class since 1931 and, at times, it has been all encompassing.

For instance, the bells have taken center stage on football Saturdays through the years. Perhaps the most notable came on Nov. 23, 1946 after the Tar Heels beat Duke for the first time in six years, 22-7. Master Bell Ringer Kenneth Ross, who was a sophomore from Greensboro, left the game early, scurried up the Bell Tower steps and played "Happy Days are Here Again" as fans enthusiastically left Kenan Stadium. Then he played "Hark the Sound" over and over again.

It was the biggest celebration since World War II ended.


When President John F. Kennedy spoke at Kenan Stadium in 1961, the bells also rang joyously and when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, time stood still as the chimes banged a salute.

In the modern era - that is since the student-alumni group called the Order of the Bell Tower was founded in 1980 - students may remember the bell ringing out in celebration and playing fight songs, like when the Tar Heels won Dean Smith's first national basketball championship in 1982. But those who were on campus in 2008 remember a more solemn occasion.

David Steele, who was the master bell ringer during his senior year of 2008, received a call from the Chancellor's office one March morning asking him to go the Bell Tower that afternoon and toll the largest bell every 30 seconds for 15 minutes prior to a memorial service for a student who had died.

"I went into class, more focused on the test that I was about to take than my task for later that day," Steele said. "I walked out of Hanes Art Center after completing the test ready to continue my day when I noticed a friend of mine that was in the same class on the phone, crying. I walked over to check on her, and she said that the University released the identity of the murdered student. It was Student Body President Eve Carson."

Steele went to South Building and spoke briefly with Chancellor James Moeser about the timing and the ceremony. Steele suggested playing Hark the Sound at the conclusion of the memorial service. The Chancellor agreed that it would be fitting.

Steele was a bit nervous as he unlocked the Bell Tower door and climbed the winding staircase. He completed the 15 minutes of tolling, and then sat quietly waiting for a phone call that would signal it was time for him to play the alma mater. "The electronic system that rang the bells had a tendency to sometimes drop a note, leading to an awkward silence in the middle of a song," he said. "I was just hoping that didn't happen. The song went off without a hitch."

Things haven't always gone smoothly for the Bell Tower. In fact, in 1965 the gear operating the chimes and the clock began to wear out. Often the time was wrong and thus the bell wouldn't ring at the right time. In 1967, an electronic system costing more than $15,000 was installed to correct the problem and automate the Bell Tower.

A mechanism much like a electronic piano roll player was installed that played nine tunes including "Greensleeves" and "Wayfaring Stranger." By the end of the 1960s, the paper scrolls started coming off the spool, caused by a stripped gear wheel. It was replaced and daily concerts of 10 minutes each, just before noon and 5 p.m., resumed.

"On schedule, the system would turn a roll of paper pre-punched with holes for each bell, which would play the songs in sequence," said Travis Kephart '05, a former master bell ringer who has become somewhat of an historian on the Bell Tower. "It sort of took away the absolute need for a bell ringer, but the tower could still be rung manually via a 12-note electric keyboard when you needed a song not on the player piano roll."

When the Bell Tower first chimed in 1931, it was a totally manual system. The 12 notes were played by pulling a set of ropes. For nearly four decades, the master bell ringers, who were students from the UNC Music Department, would manually play the chimes by pulling down on wooden levers, which some described as plow handles, and by switching between three pedals with their feet.

The levers were connected to ropes that ran through the floors of the Bell Tower to the bells themselves, which altogether weighted 14,300 pounds. The master bell ringers would normally play songs for anywhere between 15 minutes and an hour each evening and for special events on campus and occasional concerts.

For years, probably until sometime in the early 1950s, John Motley Morehead III provided master bell ringers with a $500 stipend and free lodging at the Steele Building, which didn't have shower facilities.

Master bell ringers certainly earned their keep as ringing the bell wasn't easy. Not only did it take coordination, strength and a musical ear but it took some getting used to. The Bell Tower set up is somewhat different than most in that the ringing apparatus is about 70 feet from the instrument. In comparison, at the Duke Chapel, the carillon cabin is directly under the belfry. The distance causes a significant sound delay from the time the rope is pulled to the time the bell's sound reaches your ears. While under an entirely different system, this delay issue continues today for master bell ringers.

As one might suspect, the Bell Tower today is computerized. From 1998 to 2004, a computer emitted low-voltage signals for each bell that are relayed to the strikers. That same year a private donor funded the addition of two notes - an additional G and an A bell - in order to be able to play The Star-Spangled banner and other songs. The newest strikers are mounted on the outside of the bell rather than inside, and strike the rim of the bell with a spring-loaded brass ball.

During that time, the Bell Tower was prone to lightning strikes that eventually fried the electronics in the computer. In the mid 2000s, a new computer was installed that supported a fiber-optic link which has presumably helped protect the operation of the Bell Tower from the effects of lightening strikes.

While the Bell Tower has been beloved by most, and most have enjoyed hearing the sounds, there have been times that people have complained. The bells were, after all, loud enough to be heard 12 miles away in Durham during the dedication ceremony. It wasn't the songs but the hourly toll that had some professors who lived in the vicinity covering their ears. They requested that the tolling of the hour be curtailed after bedtime.

These types of criticisms pop up from time to time but generally the Bell Tower has a good reputation. For instance, in 1945, UNC student Hardinge Menzies '49 wrote in The Daily Tar Heel that the Bell Tower is a landmark to be honored, glorified and appreciated.

"It stands as a kind of monument to the good things which Carolina has meant in the past and is meaning today to the thousands of students, alumni and people of the Old North State.," he wrote.

Menzies, who goes by Henry, today is a respected architect in New Rochelle, NY and he hasn't heard the Bell Tower ring in years. "Chapel Hill will always be a very special place," he said. "I have few friends left from my Carolina days. I've been up here in Yankee land since I was 32!"

However, he continues to have fond memories of the Bell Tower and his days at UNC. 

As the Bell Tower has aged, it has become even more of an icon. In fact, a wooden frame left after the removal of the original clock mechanism has become a favorite spot for students to sign during tower climbs. These climbs have become more numerous in recent years thanks to the UNC General Alumni Association with the help of the Order of the Bell Tower.

In 2002, the GAA started a tradition of allowing people to climb the Bell Tower during Homecoming. In 2007, they extended that to all home football game days. Now seniors, just before graduation, have a special day to climb the Bell Tower. But you don't have to climb the Bell Tower to appreciate it.

As Menzies wrote during his freshman year, "The next time you happen to hear the mellow chimes singing softly "Hark! the Sound" around dusk, just stop and consider the richness and fullness of life which those bells symbolize here at Carolina."

The Bell Tower has proven to be a perfect symbol for the Order of the Bell Tower, which also has come to represent the richness and fullness of life at Carolina.

(Editor's Note: Clifton Barnes has written a separate book on the history of the Order of the Bell Tower that has yet to be published.)

10 Quick Facts about the Bell Tower

1) The official name is Morehead-Patterson Memorial Bell Tower.

2) The first piece to be played on the Bell Tower was "The Bells of St. Mary's."

3) Morehead and Patterson originally suggested that the Bell Tower be atop Wilson Library but the idea was rejected.

4) From the steps of South Building, the Bell Tower has a "dunce cap illusion" over Wilson Library. Intentional?

5 The Bell Tower was also offered to top the then new Memorial Hall.

6) Sixteen Moreheads and 11 Pattersons are commemorated on the tablets beneath the arcade.

7) There are 128 steps to the top of the tower.

8) The chimes and bells are turned off for the wee hours of the morning.

9) In 1953, Marion Knox Polk ’54 became the first female master bell ringer.

10) The original chimes were said to be exact replicas of the famous West Point chimes.


Bell Tower Piano.A mechanism much like a electronic piano roll player was installed in the Bell Tower in 1967

Master Bell Ringers

Edward E. Blodgett ’34 1931-32
Walter B. Patterson ’32 1932-34
Lewis S. Puckett ’36 1934-36
Robert G. Simmons ’40 1936-37
William L. Benton ’42 1937-38
Robert G. Simmons ’40 1938-40
Hubert P. Henderson ’41 1940-41
William L. Benton ’42 1941-42
Gregory Manning Perky ’43 1942-43
Alexander Harper ’45 1943-44
Rufus Norris ’48 1943-45
Charles E. Stevens ’48 1944-46
Almonte Howell Jr. ’46 1945-46
James Hall ’47 1946-47
Kenneth Ross ’49 1946-48
Charles Stevens ’48 1947-48
Norman Clark ’50 1949-50
Robert MacDonald ’50 1949-50
John Rae ’51 1951-52
Joseph Fields ’53 1952-53
Marion Knox Polk ’54 1953-54
Bryon Freeman        1955-1956
Eddie Bass    1956-1957
Harvey H. Miller ’58 1957-59
Robert Steelman      1959-1960
S Jackson Hill           1960-1963
Jonathan Arterton    1963-1967

Jo Anne Leiserson ’74 1971-74
Paul 'Pete' Armstrong          1974-1976
Frank W. King ’80 1976-80
Scott Pearson Haviland ’81 1980-81
Francis Davis Pittman ’86 1981-86
Allen Reep    1986-1990
Robin Marion Heller ’93 1991-94
Brian Daniel Miller ’94 1994-95
Dawn Spiggle ’94 1995-96
Heather Adaire Causey ’98 1996-98
Natalie Elizabeth Ledford ’01 1998-00
Kimberley Layne Benton ’03 2000-01
Jeffrey Fuchs           2001-2002
Travis R. Kephart ’05 2002-04
Linsey Noelle Shuford ’08 2004-06
David Thomas Steele ’08 2006-08
Austin Ford Ramsey ’11 2008-10
Brian Vanderjeugdt ’11 2010-11
Michael Crosa ’12 2011-12
Patrick Vanderjeugdt ’13 2012-13
Edmond James Harrison ’14 2013-14
Ian Vanderjeugdt '15 2014-15
Peter Carter '15 2014-15
Erin Vanderjeudgt    2015-2016

(Provided by former master ringers Travis Kephart ’05 and David Steele ’08, and UNC Bands director Jeff Fuchs. Gaps in this list indicate an unknown ringer covering one or more years. Efforts continue to fill in the gaps.)