University of Chicago dedicates new bells on campus

Bells in Mitchell Tower—the first ones in 115 years—honor those with ties to campus, Chicago, bell-ringing tradition

A new set of bells will soon be ringing out on campus at the University of Chicago. The giant metal bells were dedicated Aug. 4 in Hutchinson Courtyard in honor of 12 notable people with ties to the University, to Chicago or to bell ringing, including President Barack Obama, Carl Sandburg, first UChicago President William Rainey Harper, Jane Addams and Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.

The 10 bells, which were cast in England, are a bit lighter than the old ones and soon will be installed in Mitchell Tower, joining the 10 existing bells put in place more than a century ago.

At the dedication, Michele Rasmussen, the dean of students, talked about the rich history of change ringing at UChicago and thanked the donors whose gift made the bells possible. “Gifts like this can have a transformative impact on the students here.”

Christian J. Haller, AM’72, and Helen D. Haller donated money for the bells, their upkeep and for a ringing program for students. Chris Haller spoke about the close-knit community of bell ringing, which he discovered as a student at UChicago.

He said change ringing is a “rewarding challenge,” which involves “people working together toward a common goal.”

The bell tower that soars over the Reynolds Club was modeled after a 1509 tower at Oxford’s Magdalen College, and the first chimes were dedicated in 1908 in honor of Alice Freeman Palmer, the first dean of women in the graduate schools. The Palmer bells weigh from 564 pounds up to 2,443 pounds.

Change-ringing bells are part of a long and storied tradition. It originated about 350 years ago in England and involves a group of people rhythmically ringing a set of tuned bells in coordination through a series of changing sequences that are set by mathematical principles and executed according to patterns. Instead of a conventional melody, a rich cascade of sound is achieved.

Today, there are about 50 towers dotted across the U.S. with English change-ringing bells.

The old bearings and the platform that the bells were on were problematic and the old bells were a bit difficult to handle. The new bells will provide a superior result, the ringers said. The old bells will remain and will be used as chimes, so they will no longer be pulled with ropes to ring out.

The Guild of Change Ringers at UChicago meets twice a week to practice the change ringing that is used at Mitchell Tower. Below the tower holding the bells, the group pulls on ropes to ring the bells, which fully rotate and strike clappers. The carillon at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, by contrast, is played with a keyboard.

As work is being done on the tower, the change-ringing group, which is made up of College and graduate students, alumni and community members, has been meeting in a classroom at Eckhart Hall to practice on handbells. The ringers hope to sound the new bells for more University events and special occasions when they are in place.

Tom Farthing, the UChicago ringing master, said that he hopes “students grow, as I have, through my involvement in change ringing. I hope they get a respite from the demands of the university. I hope they feel the comfort of the community we create.”

Farthing is always thrilled when people learn about the bells and begin to appreciate change ringing.

“I love teaching people how to ring,” he said. “I love sharing something that has meant so much to me. I love the process of learning to precisely control a massive hunk of swinging metal. I love to see people working together to create something challenging and beautiful.”

Challenges and rewards of ringing

There’s a special bond among the change ringers and they are passionate about the practice.

Natalie Nitsch, who graduated from the College in June and is working on a master’s degree at the Divinity School, said she initially started ringing because her boyfriend is an enthusiastic ringer. “I stayed, though, because it’s an all-around excellent hobby. It challenges you physically—a person needs strength and coordination to ring the multi-ton tower bells successfully—as well as mentally.”

The patterns that they ring follow a set of rules, and fully immersing herself in a pattern while ringing requires her to enter a kind of “numerical flow state,” she said.

“I study religion, so I don’t do much of that kind of thinking in my day-to-day life. It’s really nice to have a hobby that uses that part of my brain. It’s also a helpful way to give myself breaks from studying. … Also, if you are an academic and do not see a whole lot of progress in your work from day to day, a hobby like change ringing, where there are many clearly defined benchmarks for doing something well and lots of discrete chunks of things that you can learn, is very gratifying.”

A global club of ringers

Isabella Scott, a UChicago graduate student who studies mathematics and is the president of the change-ringing guild, said at the ceremony that they became interested in change ringing while attending St. Andrews in Scotland as an undergrad. One of the special things about learning change ringing is that you always have like-minded peers in other places, they said.

“Any time you have a change-ringing tower, you have friends.”

Find out more about the bells and learn how to ring them.

The new Mitchell Tower bells are dedicated to these notable people:  

  • Georgiana Rose Simpson, AB 1911, PhD 1921, (1865–1944) was a philologist and the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the United States. Simpson, who earned a doctorate in German from UChicago, is also honored with a bust in the Reynolds Club.
  • Jane Addams (1860–1935) was the founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States, and was known for her dedication to improving the lives of Chicago’s poor and immigrants, especially women. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
  • Steve Goodman (1948–1984) and Studs Terkel, PhB’32, JD’34, (1912–2008): Goodman was a folk singer and songwriter, known for songs such as “City of New Orleans” and “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” Terkel was a Chicago-based writer of 18 books and a radio broadcaster for 45 years. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for “The Good War: An Oral History of World War II,” won a Peabody Award and received the National Humanities Medal.
  • Bruce and Eileen Butler are a crucial part of the history of the North American Guild of Change Ringers. Bruce was president of the guild at the time of his death in 2022; Eileen, a longtime ringer, took over the presidency.
  • Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) was an American poet, biographer, journalist, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes—two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Timuel Black, AM’54, (1918–2021) was a historian and civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and mentored President Barack Obama early in his political career. In his honor, the University’s Office of Civic Engagement established the Timuel D. Black Community Solidarity Scholar Fund, given each year to an outstanding University undergraduate or graduate student who exemplifies Black’s spirit.
  • Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States. Prior to his presidency, he was a U.S. senator, an Illinois state senator and a senior lecturer in the University of Chicago Law School.
  • William Rainey Harper (1856–1906) was the founding president of the University of Chicago. A noted Hebrew scholar, he established much of the University as we know it today.
  • Arthur H. Nichols (1840–1923) learned to ring at a young age, at a time when there were very few change-ringing towers in North America. About a third of the approximately 50 towers now across the continent are the result of his unflagging efforts.
  • Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (1745–1818) was the first known permanent, non-indigenous settler in Chicago. He lived along the north bank of the Chicago River, where he developed a prosperous trading post and farm.