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The Tower Bells:
Messenger of the Campus

The third-floor elevator clanks open for a hurried passenger. He's late. He strides down the hall muttering and glancing at his watch, then he stops to unlock a closet-sized room. Only a black telephone decorates the blue walls; a wooden chair sits in one corner and in the other stands an electric keyboard. Sitting like a concert pianist, he plugs in the keyboard and "plugs in" his fingers to play for 41,000 students and the capital city of Austin.

He's Tom Anderson, BM '53, MM '56, assistant director of UT's International Office. He performs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 12:50 in the University of Texas Tower. He plays the bells; he makes them sing. He's never seen, and he's never paid. This is just a hobby.

Childhood piano lessons, high school bands and church choirs led to his being The University's official bellringer for 14 consecutive years. "We don't have a full carillon," he says, as he plunges into the history of the Tower bells. A full carillon is normally 36 bells, but it can have a minimum of 15 bells tuned to chromatic intervals, or half-steps, as the Tower bells are.

Only 16 bells were included in the building cost and they were installed in 1936 when the Tower was being constructed. Lutcher Stark, then a Board of Regents member, supplied a 600-pound C-sharp bell, making a total of 17 bells weighing 36,500 pounds and costing around $40,000.

Space was left in the Tower for additional bells to make a full carillon, but it's out of the question for some of the bigger bells, like another C-sharp bell (4800 pounds).

"It's too big to come up the central Tower shaft or through the stairway," Mr. Anderson explains. "And it couldn't be hauled up from outside on a crane because the columns spaces of the belfry aren't wide enough. The biggest bells were installed while the Tower was being built.

"Now, six, seven or eight of the smaller bells would fit and that would give use two full octaves, about 25 bells. But I know of no plans to finish the carillon, unless some University exes donate them."

The bells, cast by Old Meneely Bell Foundry in Watervliet, NY, are made of 78 percent copper, 22 percent tin and covered with bronze. The iron hammers also are bronze covered.

"'Golden' bells or 'silver' bells are poetic fancy," writes William Gorham Rice in his book Carillon Music and Singing Towers of the Old World and the New. "These expressions are efforts to describe perfect bell sounds. A pure silver bell or a pure gold bell would not be satisfactorily resonant."

Janet Yantis, daughter of a Tower constructor (H. C. Yantis), was the first to play the resonant bells in 1937, and naturally the first song was "The Eyes of Texas."

By 1938, the College of Fine Arts was established and the carillon concerts were performed three times weekly by a music major as a graduate assistant job. It was a paying job then but not anymore.

"The custom was that as the bellringer finished his school career, he'd find somebody else and bring him to the dean and say, 'Here's my successor,'" Mr. Anderson explains. "A person kept the job as long as he was in school. I started as a senior and then stayed for graduate studies in music, so I played from 1952 to 1956 when I completed my master's; and then again from 1967 until now.

"The bells played continuously until October 1965. Because of a fire in the electrical system of the Tower, the Observation Deck was closed for a few months for repair, and they decided to air-condition the Tower at the same time. Then the Observation Deck closed after the Charles Whitman (tower sniper) event. So from fall '65 to late spring '67 the bells weren't ringing."

Until 1968, the bellringer played on a clavier, or mechanical keyboard in a little hut underneath the bells in the Tower. "At that time I had to go all the way up to the top of the elevator (to the 27th floor of the 307 foot Tower) to the Observation Deck and then three flights more to get to the keyboard," Mr. Anderson says.

"After the Whitman event, a fulltime policeman guarded the deck, and because they closed during lunchtime when I played the bells, I had to have a policeman escort me up there and down. It cut his lunchtime short but I don't think he ever cared. In fact, I think he kind of enjoyed it."

'But then the Regents though it would be more convenient to have it moved down here on the third floor of the Main Building where it would be more accessible," says Mr. Anderson.

So now Tom Anderson sits in his chair in the room specially made for the electric keyboard and adjusts the volume control of the amplifier, which enables him to hear his playing without a time lag.

"It's real confusing without the amplifier because I'm playing one thing and hearing it a beat behind. With the amplifier I hear it immediately. I could turn up the volume to knock you out of your chair if I wanted to," he says.

"The main advantage with this electrical keyboard is that it can be located far away from the bells so I don't have to climb up the Tower. I can play faster runs on it, but I can't play faster repeated notes. I can with the mechanical keyboard, because I have control over when the bell clapper returns. On the electrical apparatus I have to wait for the clapper to return before I can operate it again. Also, the mechanical keyboard gives me more control with the dynamics, the control of loud and soft notes," he says.

"I'd like to play the old mechanical keyboard occasionally, just to keep my hand in on playing it and to keep it in condition. It was nice being up there, especially in pretty weather. I got a good feeling from playing the bells," he grins.

As the Tower clock automatically strikes the hour of one, the concert's over.

Mr. Anderson unplugs his keyboard and "unplugs his fingers," locks up the closet-sized room and strides happily down the hall to the third-floor elevator, waiting for it to open with its rusty groan and snatch him away from the now silent Tower until next time.

Alcalde. May/June 1978.
Article by: Debi Moen

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3 May 1999
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