Visitors few to University bell tower

By Jason Morrison

This article was written for Newswriting and Reporting class at Ohio Wesleyan University. It appeared in The Transcript November 17, 1999. For a clipping, click here.

I grip the final rung of the ladder, brushing some of the sand, dust and slate from the top. I check my footing on the rung below and lift my foot to the next rung up, careful not to bang the camera strung around my neck into the wood. Three more steps and I am through the trap door, onto the sandy white floor and appreciating the best view in all of Delaware-from the highest point on the Ohio Wesleyan campus, the bell tower of University Hall.

I look at the JAYWalk, more than 100 feet below. One or two students-they look tiny from up here-make their way to Hamilton-Williams Campus Center. I turn and see the glass roof of Slocum Hall from above. I am the first student to enjoy this view in years.

I'm a junior but I've been interested in the tower since I was a freshman. Everyday around 1,800 students walk by the imposing structure, but it seemed as if no one had ever been up there. I was a little surprised when Buildings and Grounds agreed to let me up.

I met Dennis Wall, the electric shop supervisor at Buildings and Grounds and my tour guide, on the third floor of University earlier that day. I had talked to him on the phone two days previous and he told me he could take me up the tower.

"Bring some gloves," he told me. "Oh, and do you have any allergies? It gets pretty dusty up there."

He was right about the dust, but it is much cleaner than I had expected. The floors, ladders and steps are gritty with bits of stone, eroded from the building, but makeshift screens had kept the birds-and the bird poop-out for some time. "I wasn't here then," Dennis said. "But I have heard stories from the guys who had to clean this out. They literally filled up buckets, and had to carry them down by hand."

I've never met Dennis before but couldn't miss him-tall and thin, he carries a set of keys the size of my fist and a black walkie-talkie on his belt. He wears jeans and a sweatshirt, appropriate for the chilly autumn breeze. Our first stop is a narrow hallway that led to the first set of stairs. An old clock, worn but sturdy and attractive, faces us.

"What this used to do," Dennis says, nodding at the clock, "is signal the class bells for this building, Sturges and Slocum. See the little notches? There's a special tool-obviously this is not in use anymore-and you just put the notches in the thing at the time you want to set a clock to ring the bell." The notched tape would wind around with the gear work, allowing metal contacts to touch when a notch passed by. Dennis says he's always wanted to restore it, but hasn't had the time.

One staircase later, we are in the room where the bell was originally rung. Ropes once hung here, allowing people to do the work before the clock was installed. Dennis points out the worn round holes where the ropes came through the ceiling. Ringing the bells all day must have been a rough job-Dennis says he's heard rumors it was delegated to freshmen.

Dennis and I climb our way up to the next floor. "Be extremely careful," Dennis says, "there are no railings, okay?" An old engine rusts in the center of the room. "Now I can tell you exactly about this. It was installed in 1947. I know that for a fact-I've still got the original sales slip for it, from a company from Cincinnati. There's only a few bell makers left in the world."

The motor replaced the ropes. When it ran, it created a back-and-forth movement, which caused the bell to toll. The old brake pads, made from asbestos and now irreplaceable, failed two years ago. Though they tried to fix it, Dennis says, the parts were just unavailable.

"Actually what we have is what the alternative is for our day and age now. To be completely honest a lot of places are doing away with their bell completely and they're doing tapes." University Hall's system, though modern, still uses a real bell.

Dennis suggests I check out the school's archives. There, he thinks I can find a little more background information.

The archives/special collections section of Beeghly Library looks more like a minimum-security prison than a library. Institutional fencing, supported by metal bars, blocks off the section from the rest of the second floor. I ring a buzzer and am let in.

Kay Schlichting, one of the librarians in charge of the archives, meets me halfway across the room. When I mention I'm looking for historical background on University and the tower she brightens. She walks directly to a low file drawer in an aisle near the back of the room and pulls out several files crammed with papers.

"When University was built, Elliot was in the position University is in now," Kay says. "They voted to move Elliot to its present location. Evidently they had a little trouble moving it, too." According to Ohio Wesleyan: The First Hundred Years by Henry Clyde Hubbart, the problem was weight. "The hall [Elliot] was found to be of oak and walnut and was more than twice as heavy as any of the contractors who bid for its removal had anticipated," the article says.

Kay begins pulling out photos and papers from the files. "It used to be that people had to go ring the bell. I also understand at one point there was a student who lived up there to kind of supervise the building. This would have been a long time ago."

Kay pulls out an article copied from the June 20, 1893 issue of The College Transcript. The article describes the completion of University Hall and Gray Chapel.

"The material used in construction is a beautiful buff sandstone of North Amherst, Ohio, with rock-face range finish. Occupying the most commanding position upon the college campus, University Hall with its prominent gables and turrets is a splendid example of that modern style of architecture which is best described as a transition from the conventional to the Norman.

"Between the two gables on the west side, a massive quadrangular tower, ending in an octagonal pyramid, rises 148 feet in height and gives an impressive effect to the entire structure."

As Dennis and I reach the top floor, below the octagonal pyramid, I'm immediately drawn to the windows. The view is spectacular. I lift the camera's viewfinder up to my eye and snap a shot of downtown Delaware in the noon sun.

Dennis smiles wide. "I don't make a special trip up here, but every time I do come up here-though it's cold-I do sit down for a second and just check it out. You don't realize how many trees Delaware has until you get up here."

I turn from the window and look at the room. The bell sits squat in the center above the hole where the ropes used to hang down. A modern-looking piece of equipment mounted below and within the bell contrast with the weathered metal.

Dennis shows me the new clapper. "We have these electrical solenoids on here and we're shooting either 120 volts or 220 volts into this which these solenoids push the clapper out. The stronger voltage actually gives a harder hit. That's what they call the Doppler effect, or the ding-dong sound."

I back up to take a picture of the bell and Dennis steps gingerly out of the way. I ask him to be in the picture but he declines. He points out some graffiti carved into the stone and painted on the ceiling and bell itself.

"It used to be just part of graduation they'd come up and steal the clapper. That was like a big deal. Every Year, B&G and Public Safety, one of their main responsibilities was to check and see that the clapper wasn't stolen. They'd post guards and this and that.

"Obviously, if someone made it all the way up here they wanted to leave evidence. The graffiti. If you look here, [19]04. And it's like they did it yesterday, you know, because it hasn't weathered up here. That's pretty cool, I think."

I ask how the students got up-we had to go through two locked doors to get the first stairway.

"Who knows? If you can find youth, determination and energy, a lot can happen."

Though apparently not recently. The most recent graffiti is from 1968, and Dennis hasn't heard of any students making their way up in the four years he's been here.

"I don't know how the tradition started," Dennis says. "Probably if anybody knows about it [now], it's because people that know about it-staff, faculty and whatever, bring it up."

Later I ask Kay about the tradition. She's not sure how it started, but says she's heard a few interesting stories about the stolen clappers.

"One story was just recently solved," Kay explains. "The clapper was taken by a student years ago and just recently returned."

The story was told in a September 17, 1997 issue of The Transcript. An alumnus, going by the name "Eggplant Bloomingdale III," returned the clapper he and the other members of "The Muffin Bloomingdales" stole in the 1930s.

"In early July [1997], Eggplant sent a letter to Pam Besel, director of Public Relations and the editor of Ohio Wesleyan Magazine, informing her that he would return the clapper. Two weeks later, a man delivered an unmarked brown package to the Mowri Alumni Center and disappeared before they unwrapped it and realized it was the clapper."

Students dread climbing the stairs to class on the third floor, but Dennis and I are quite a bit higher.

The wooden planks that form the ceiling look ancient. The impact of more than 100 years of wind and rain can be read on every stone. From the outside, all we see is rough stone, but inside I notice that though stones make up the corners and frame the windows, large sections of the walls are brick.

"The brick would have been used as filler. It's part of the structure, but keep in mind how this thing was built," Dennis says. "This thing will outlast anything built in Delaware today, unless something catastrophic were to happen."

Dennis points to the "'04" graffiti on the ceiling. "This [the wood] obviously has held up for 96 years. With the roof renovation they cleaned all the sandstone and tuck-pointed. Actually, it's a pretty sound structure."

I recall walking up Sandusky Street after dark few days earlier. The bell tower seemed even more imposing then, like a haunted castle in the moonlight. Dennis says he's never been up in the tower at night.

"I've been up here at dusk. We did attempt to try to fix the toller. This is when we discovered that the asbestos brake pads were bad. I was up here with two other fellows from the company we hired to attempt that all Saturday and it was close to dusk when we got out of here. Course, we'd been up here about 14 hours so I wasn't too inquisitive about the view when it got dark. You know, what little skyline there is of Delaware."

The conversation pauses as we look out. Students begin to trickle across Sandusky Street and up the JAYWalk. A parking meter cart pauses near a truck and then continues on. The fall colors blaze under a nearly cloudless sky. I take another picture and Dennis continues.

"Yeah, it crossed my mind to come up here for the fireworks display in Delaware. I probably could have seen all three other communities at once."

The tower has seen some fireworks lately. After the new slate roof was installed, the tower was struck by lightning-once June 28 last year and once again this summer. Dennis points out a few pieces of new wood in the roof. Most of the damage was to the slate tiles.

Though the first strike caused $86,000 in damage, Dennis says the school spared no expense on the new protection installed after this year's strike-it covers not only the tower, but the rest of the roof as well.

"You probably didn't see the guy do the lightning protection. He installed the majority in a Bowson's chair-you know what that is? It's a little board with ropes that hang off the end of a crane. It's the easiest way to work on slate roofs like this. Just hoisted him up and swung him around."

I try to imagine swinging from a single wooden plank above the roof. I lean out to the metal grating in the window. The height wouldn't have bothered me, but the view might have kept me a little distracted from fixing the copper to the tile.

Copyright 2000 Jason Morrison