N.C. State University finally has real bells for tower

NCSU has three so far; a 55-bell carillon is planned

jprice@newsobserver.com March 31, 2012 

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N.C. State University's bell tower was slated to get new bells in spring 2008.

ROBERT WILLETT — 2008 News & Observer file photo

— More than 90 years after construction began on its iconic Bell Tower, N.C. State University finally has bells for it.

The first three bells of a planned total of 55 have been delivered to campus and will be formally unveiled in a ceremony at 5 p.m. Monday that’s expected to include Chancellor Randy Woodson and UNC System President Emeritus Bill Friday, an NCSU graduate.

The three bells were paid for with donations collected in a fund drive started by a group that included officers of the Class of 2010, which paid for the largest bell, a 2,100-pounder that will ring the hour note. Two families with NCSU connections donated the other two.

The university’s Bell Tower was conceived in the 1920s as a memorial to 34 N.C. State College men who died in World War I, but its construction was plagued by financial problems before its outer shell was completed by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. Bells were planned from the beginning, but since the tower’s dedication in 1949 it has had to make do with electronic chimes.

Matthew Robbins, then a graduate student, sparked the campaign to install bells with his exhaustive research into the Bell Tower’s past. Jay Dawkins, who become president of the Class of 2010, took up the challenge of raising money for the first bell.

The initial plan was to raise enough money to buy the second-largest bell, but the class raised more than expected – some $56,000 – and the price of bronze fell.

It will be the largest gift a senior class has ever donated to the university, Robbins said.

“I’ve been working on this so long, and it’s great to finally see the fruits of the labor of all the people who have been working towards this,” Robbins said.

The original plan was for 54 bells, but the foundry that made the first three, Meeks, Watson & Co. in Georgetown, Ohio, suggested adding another small one for a proper range of sound.

Robbins, an irrepressibly enthusiastic NCSU history buff, said he was floored when Bill Friday agreed to come to Monday’s unveiling. Friday, as president of the senior class in 1941, started the first student campaign to raise money for the bells.

The fundraising went on for a few years but fell short, and the money was used instead to install the electronic chimes, Robbins said.

“Bill Friday is an incredible part of this puzzle, and he’s one of the few people who actually speaks with direct knowledge about the original plan for the bells,” he said.

The group will wait until it has the five bells required to play the Westminster Chimes before installing them. In addition to the largest bell, which rings an F below middle C, it now has the 14th largest bell, a G that weighs 260 pounds, donated in the memory of Helena Gardner by her family, and the 16th largest bell, an A that weighs 195 pounds, donated by W.F. Morris III and his family in honor of his father and grandfather.

A committee will continue seeking donors for the other two bells – a C above middle C that would weigh 650 pounds, and an F at 340 pounds.

The installation, Robbins said, would depend on the timing of renovations that are planned for the tower but have been delayed. The goal is to do the renovations and installation of the first bells simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the bells will be on display at the D.H. Hill library, where visitors can see and touch them, and check out their tone by rapping them with their knuckles.

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