The bells of Michigan
The 53 bells of the Baird Carillon in Burton Memorial Tower, from the smallest (21 pounds) to the biggest (12 tons), have been tolling the quarter-hours and making music for 80 years now — so long that it’s hard to imagine the campus without them.
But they are only the latest in a line of Michigan bells that date to the first students and the earliest classes.
The daily pealing began in the early 1840s with a simple handbell wielded by the University’s first janitor, Pat Kelly, whom students honored with the title “Professor of Dust and Ashes.”
Every morning, Pat would rise early and walk the corridors of North Hall (which stood about where Mason Hall stands now), jangling the students out of their sleep. If a student failed to stir, Pat would lean into his room and yell: “DID YEZ HEAR THE BELL?”
Pat was loud but not always timely. According to Andrew Ten Brook, an early professor and librarian, “he rang the bell according to his convenience, rather than by his clock. If his pipe went out on his way to ring the bell, he went back and relighted it.”
Battle of the bell
The bell was rung to signal the start of each hour of lecture or recitation. But its chief purpose was to rouse students for morning chapel, a ritual that many resented and resisted, and a running battle ensued.
At first, students would simply steal Kelly’s handbell. The faculty responded by hanging it from the top of a pole just east of North Hall. So students would climb the pole and muffle the bell by one means or another. The most effective came one winter night in the 1850s, when they flipped the bell over and filled it with water that froze overnight, cracking the bell. It still rang, but in decidedly unmusical tones.
Matters came to a head late one night in 1861, when the bell pole was felled by an axe and the bell hauled off to some distant hiding place in the woods. The next morning, students came into chapel eager to see how President Henry Philip Tappan would respond.
One attendee reported Tappan’s remarks as follows:
“Gentlemen, there has doubtless been a mistake in the theory of some of you regarding the college bell. It would seem that some have believed that if the bell were destroyed, time would cease and University exercises would be suspended. But, my friends, time goes on as ever, without the bell as with it.”
Professors could afford clocks and watches, Tappan continued. But the regents, knowing that some students were not so well fixed, had been gracious enough to help them by purchasing a bell and hiring a man to ring it. Now, apparently, they no longer felt the need of such aid.
“I am glad to see you trying this experiment,” he said, “and will only suggest that it be tried thoroughly. Of course, the rolls will be called in the lecture rooms promptly, as usual, and you will, of course, be present.” Perhaps, in time, the students would decide the bell might be useful, after all. If so, they could petition the regents, and “I trust that they will allow you to restore it to its former position.”
Starting that day, students found professors taking attendance with fresh enthusiasm and penalizing lateness and absence “rather more mercilessly than of old.” After several weeks, the students gave in, offered to return the bell from hiding, and “a few mornings later, the bell was found in its old place on a new column, was rung as usual, and matters went on after the old fashion.”
A peal of chimes
After the Civil War, a massive new bell, too big to steal, replaced the original. It was “very loud and sternly toned,” according to one student of the 1870s. Its discordance may have been the trigger for the generous gift that soon followed.
By 1880 the University’s library was bursting at its seams, so at the regents’ request, the state legislature appropriated $100,000 for a new library at the center of the Diag. The blueprints included two stately towers.
When Charles Kendall Adams, chair of the History Department, saw the plans, he got in touch with a friend, Andrew Dickson White, a former U-M professor who was now president of Cornell.
As a young instructor at Michigan, White had personally planted most of the elms that studded the Diag, and he retained a deep fondness for U-M. He now wrote Adams back, saying: “Find two or three persons to join me in the matter, and we will put four or five bells in place without cost to the University.”
Adams found two more donors — a scientist and a deep-pocketed banker — and after extensive correspondence with the world’s leaders in bell manufacturing, settled on the Clinton H. Meneely Bell Company of Troy, N.Y.
Meneely’s peal of five bells, ranging from 210 to 3,071 pounds, was installed in the Library’s west tower on December 12, 1883. Inscribed on the largest were these words in Latin: “Call together those who are studious of all good things both human and divine.”
On the quarter hour, they tolled the “Westminster Quarters”— four permutations of four pitches in E-major — for nearly 40 years, until the towers came down to make way for the new General Library in 1920. So the campus was bell-less until the Baird Carillon was installed in 1936.
Sudden hearing loss
In the Medical Department, meanwhile, the tradition of ringing a bell by hand continued for many years.
The bearer of the bell was Gregor “Doc” Nagele, a German-American immigrant who went to work for the University in the late 1840s. In time, his duties for the medical faculty included the procurement of cadavers for dissection. In fact, he became so knowledgeable about dead bodies that he became the department’s top assistant in anatomy classes, and he was much admired by faculty and students.
The sound of Nagele’s bell was a fixture in the lives of successive generations of Michigan medical students. And it became a point of pride that his old hand-rung bell could be heard more clearly in the environs of the Medical Department than the new chimes in the tower of the Library.
In the early 1890s, the regents tried to force the aging Nagele into retirement. He had grown too old for custodial service, and the regents said the bells in the Library tower made it unnecessary to keep a man on just to ring a bell by hand.
Nagele was distraught. “They tell me that I can no longer ring the bell,” he told friends, “and that I am discharged.”
At this, most of the medical faculty promptly reported a mass case of hearing loss. No matter how hard they tried, they simply could not hear the central campus bells, they said. Within days, Doc Nagele was restored to his job, and he stayed on until his death in 1900.
Sources include “The Bells of the University of Michigan,” Michigan Alumnus, May 1919; Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White (1905); Victor Vaughan, “’Doc’ Nagele,” Michigan Alumnus, October 1900.
(Top The largest bell in the Baird Carillon weights 12 tons Image: Michigan Photography.)