On Ben's Farm

For Whom the Bell Tolls
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Thompson Hall by Richard D. Merritt, UNH Photographic Services

On a cold, blustery February day last winter, many on campus--students bent over their books, professors at the blackboard and staff typing on computers--paused simultaneously. On that morning, as the carillon music issued forth from the Thompson Hall tower, the melody sounded very much like "Here Comes the Bride."

The UNH community is accustomed to the curiously eclectic assortment of tunes played weekdays and once on Sunday by the University's carillon. Hearing "Yankee Doodle," "Amazing Grace," and "Regards to Broadway" in the same 10-minute concert has become part of the carillon's charm. But wedding music?

It would not have been the first time the carillon, or its predecessor, the Thompson Hall bell, drew attention. The bell, installed in the tower a year after Thompson Hall was built in 1892, chimed every quarter-hour through the mechanism of the Howard clock just below. But after football victories, and to sound the alarm for fires, students rang the bell with a rope. One such instance of bell ringing begins one of UNH's most famous stories.

The Durham campus of the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts was only 20 years old in 1912, but already a tradition was established that the freshmen would attempt to disrupt the annual sophomore banquet. To create a diversion that would allow sophomores to escape to the Boston train, Bill Brackett, star of the baseball team, was picked to ring the bell while his classmates created a fake smudge fire. Unfortunately for Brackett, President William Gibbs heard the bell and figured out the ruse. He dashed up the tower stairs and caught Brackett--perhaps literally--red-handed. But when Brackett was suspended, the student body staged a strike. Only after intervention by the board of trustees, and the reduction of Brackett's suspension to two weeks, was the crisis resolved.

Many years later, a carillon--miniature bells played with a keyboard, with the music broadcast via speakers--was the center of yet another bell tower controversy. The carillon had been given to UNH in 1952 to honor the late "Dad" Henderson, longtime UNH registrar. Soon after it was installed in Thompson Hall, former UNH News Bureau Director L. Franklin ("Frank") Heald '39 began playing the carillon as a favor to Irving Bartley, a music professor. When called upon, Heald would walk up one flight of stairs, and play the noontime concert. Appointed the official UNH carillonneur in 1982, Heald continued to select the music, which by then was played by a computerized 246-bell system located in the Elliott Alumni Center and broadcast through eight speakers in the Thompson Hall tower. He also fended off complaints about the volume--since affection for the carillon seems to be inversely proportional to distance from it. (One nearby listener describes the volume as "decibels beyond reason.")

But complaints of a different sort came to a head in 1992. Some faculty and students felt it was inappropriate for a state university to broadcast Christian hymns across campus, and then-president Dale Nitzschke silenced the music while a committee studied the issue. A media storm ensued. Heald, who has a puckish sense of humor (he often wears a chef's hat when presenting alumni office staff with birthday gifts of his home-baked bread), was astonished by the furor. "I've played the carillon for 40 years, and I never received the attention that I have received in the last week for not playing it," Heald quipped at the time. Many wrote Heald to express their support. "The bells remind us of home," one alumna wrote.

Heald took the position that the carillon should play examples of the best music of all kinds. After 11 days, a compromise was reached. "Onward Christian Soldiers" was banished: other hymns, including the Alma Mater (to the tune of "Lead On, O King Eternal") stayed. The carillon music resumed.

How wedding music joined the carillon's repertoire is yet another story. Heald's wife, Helen, died in 1996, and Heald, now 81, planned to marry again. For his January wedding to Glenys Shepard, Heald thought carillon music would add a nice touch, and he played, and tape-recorded, several wedding processionals on the carillon for the ceremony. Informed some months later that the carillon was broadcasting wedding music to the entire campus, he was taken aback. "Gosh, I must have left them on," he gulped. Will he let them stay? Heald just smiled and shrugged.

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