The Story of an Old Ringtone
How the campus tradition in Gunter tower was revived $1 at a time
Download the ringtone of the chimes.
— Story by Mary Sasaki, photography by Barry Guiterrez
Remember the peal of Westminster chimes from Gunter Hall, the iconic central campus building? Remember how they sang to you? How they got you to class on time and hurried you across campus to dorm rooms or football games?
Today is no different.
While campus dress is more casual and curfews a distant memory, those bells still chime every quarter hour from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Aside from several periods of silence, the bells have heralded celebrations and bemoaned crises for decades. They sounded somber notes on Sept. 11, 2001, as the nation mourned, and again on the tragedy’s 10th anniversary.
Going on 25 years now, since a successful movement brought them back, the bells have been a consistent presence.
Starting point: Programmed by a now retired employee, the brains of the operation reside in Gray Hall.
Reports are inconclusive as to just how many years Gunter tower housed bells in the building’s 84 years.
Clues in UNC Archives include a 5-foot-tall metal box containing a mechanically operated system of bells with two electric clocks. That system, donated in 1964 by the Colorado State College senior class, replaced the inoperable old chimes that were donated in 1952 by the Associated Students of Colorado State College of Education at a cost of about $4,000. According to a Greeley Tribune article published in May 1952, that set of bells was a 25-bar tone unit that provided a range of two full octaves, contained a clock apparatus and played the Westminster Chimes (a sequence each quarter hour and a more elaborate series of chimes on the hour), or selections for special occasions and holidays.
It’s unclear if the 1952 bells were Gunter’s first.
The late Grace Tidball (BA-54), a longtime Greeley resident who was born in 1933 and grew up within the shadow of Gunter Hall, remembers bells far earlier than 1952. She told the student newspaper The Mirror in April 1987: “The bells were an integral part of my growing up. They told me always, even in the Depression years, what time it was. When I was out playing, they told me what time I had to be home.”
According to that Mirror article, the original bells were installed when Gunter Hall was dedicated in 1928.
When the bells were silent in 1986, Tidball picked up the phone and called Rick Proctor (BA-73) at the university Facilities and Operations service desk.
Lost and Found: As this story was being written, Archives located the previous unit, which had fallen into disrepair in the mid-1980s, sitting in storage in a darkened corner in the basement of Michener Library.
“But the university maintenance guys said there was nothing they could do,” Proctor remembers 25 years later. “ ‘We can’t fix them — we’ve done the best we can do,’ they told her. She wasn’t satisfied and wrote to ‘Action Line’ at the Greeley Tribune,” Proctor says. “I got a call from the Tribune asking what’s going on with the bells — they’re worn out.”
In April 1987, after $2,000 had been raised, Mike Peters’ Tribune column reminisced about the old campus bells and urged readers to help raise the additional $6,000 needed to restore the bells.
Enter Gary Karre (BA-66, MA-68), branch manager at PaineWebber in Greeley, who coined the “Bucks for Bells” campaign title. The challenge, as Karre saw it, was getting the community at large to participate, “so that the richest person in town and the person with the least means could participate. We decided to impose the rule of only one dollar per person — that really engaged the community. We let the contribution level be the equalizer.”
Karre explains the campaign philosophy through a Mother Teresa story about a peasant woman who had only a palm full of rice to give the hungry, which Karre interprets as “people giving from their essence, not their excess.”
Karre says people went to extraordinary lengths to honor the $1 rule.
“I was in a grocery line at Toddy’s, a former Greeley supermarket, and a person in front of me said, ‘I want to give you a contribution,’ so he gave me a dollar for each person in his family and even his pets. It does take a village,” he says.
And it takes leadership.
Thanks to four dedicated leaders, the “Bucks for Bells” campaign successfully restored the Gunter bells, which rang again on Oct. 17, 1987, to cheers and applause from Greeley and campus residents who gathered at the old campus gym.
Proctor, the university classified employee who took the original report from Tidball and spearheaded the project on campus, offers titles for those most closely involved in the project.
Proctor refers to Tidball as “The Instigator” for picking up the phone and getting the ball rolling.
Proctor calls himself “The Go-to Guy” as the university employee actively involved in the campaign.
“I knew the ropes at the university, and I knew an outsider would have a harder time. In one day, I got the OK to go ahead and do this,” Proctor says, and the Alumni Association gave him an account number right away for deposits. “I thought it was very impressive to get the green light in one afternoon for this pretty wild idea.”
Bob Dickeson, UNC president at the time, remembers the “Bucks for Bells” campaign as “a grassroots effort.” He describes the campaign as a unique idea, a community-university partnership that happened at a symbolic time for the university.
From Gray to Gunter: Neighboring Gray Hall is the system’s starting point. The NeoBells are programmed taking advantage of digital technology. From there, a maze of wires heads underground to Gunter and up to the building’s tower.
“It was important to cling to tradition and do things that mattered about the history and the lure of the place,” Dickeson recalls.
Proctor and Karre were the right combination to spearhead such a project, he says.
“Rick was the sparkplug,” Dickeson says. “He had a way of engaging people and getting things done. It was a fun event, not the sort of thing you expected. It came out of left field, and it worked.”
Karre, dubbed by Proctor as “The Idea Guy,” telephoned Proctor after reading Peters’ Tribune column and said, “I have an idea. Let’s call it ‘Bucks for Bells’ and collect a dollar at a time.” Although the group did accept some donations of more than a dollar, the “Bucks for Bells” title stuck. Karre credits the $1 idea for the successful community-based effort to restore the bells. “Another of Gary’s ingenious ideas was to pass around butterfly nets at summer band concerts in Garden Theater” to collect dollar bills, Proctor says.
Proctor refers to the fourth team member, Joseph Haefeli, as “The Engineer.” After a review of bids and presentations from vendors on replacing the defunct bell simulator, Proctor says Haefeli was quick to offer his expertise.
“I had wondered about the demise of the old Gunter bells because of my personal interest in the subject,” Haefeli says from his new home in New York, “so when I found out there were others interested in the issue, I joined up with them to see if I could offer a little of my expertise.” That statement, Haefeli adds, “turned out to be a bit of an understatement.”
Haefeli remembers being “somewhat shocked” to learn the commercially available systems were using dated technology. “They were systems with mechanical components, and I was mystified why this was, when there were far superior all-digital possibilities out there.”
Relay: Wiring in a junction box on the brick wall inside the Gunter tower relays the sound to the outside speakers.
At the time, Haefeli says he thought: “Heck, I can do it better than this! And frankly, I didn’t think many of the available systems sounded all that good. I also knew it was going to be the third system going into Gunter, so I wanted to see the reliability improve by eliminating some of the Achilles’ heels of the commercially available systems.”
Haefeli assured Proctor he could do it.
“I can build you an all-electronic system and even use radio signals from the atomic clock in Boulder,” Haefeli told Proctor, so they would always know the time was accurate.
“He had to sell himself to the group as far as his expertise — he was a very young man,” Proctor adds.
Haefeli nailed it, successfully designing and building the new chimes.
The new system featured state-of-the-art, solid-state digital technology operated through a special computer controller he built with various options: pealing, tolling, control by the campus automation system, and a remote control at the Garden Theater that allows live carillon performances. The design goal was to reach much of campus, Haefeli says, with a range of about a mile, depending on atmospheric variables and ambient noise levels.
“It can be heard on west campus depending on where you are and in the surrounding neighborhood,” he says.
This latest set of chimes, nearly 25 years old now, was quite impressive in 1987, according to Haefeli.
“I’m fairly sure it was the first system of its kind and way ahead of its time (no pun intended), being digital and all-electronic,” says Haefeli. “It has features that I didn’t see appear on commercial products until many years later, such as its ability to synchronize itself daily with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Boulder atomic clock. Aside from making the bells quite an accurate timepiece, the system reduces staff support requirements since it can adjust itself for daylight saving time without intervention,” Haefeli says.
“I’d like to say it has operated flawlessly the entire time, but there have been a couple of instances of components failing. But overall, there’s no reason why it should not continue operating for many years to come.
“My biggest worry is a direct lightning strike to the Gunter tower. While I’ve taken steps to try to make the system robust, protecting against lightning is difficult and expensive.”
Proctor credits other key players for the project’s success. One was the Greeley Tribune, which he describes as “wonderfully supportive.” “How do you do this unless you can get the word out?” he says.
Broadcasting: The Westminster sequence is played every quarter hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily from a set of speakers on the southwest and northeast corners of the tower. The bells can be heard within about a 1-mile radius.
A second was the UNC Alumni Association.
“As I remember it, Alumni Association Director Brian Stewart said, ‘We have at least 800 alumni,’ so the association donated $800,” Proctor says.
He credits a third key player, UNC’s chapter of SPEEC, the State Personnel Employees Executive Council, for championing the cause among classified employees.
On the doorstep of the restoration’s 25th anniversary, Gunter’s bells still elicit emotions for “Bucks for Bells” leaders.
Although Haefeli no longer lives in Greeley, he knows that many others keep a keen ear to the bells.
“I know people keep track of their day via the bells because I’ll get phone calls if the system isn’t running,” says the system designer.
For those who wonder if the bells can ring indefinitely, Karre is optimistic.
“If I heard they’d gone crazy or stopped working, someone would say, ‘Hey we’ve done this before. It was successful last time because we invited a lot of people to the party by putting a cap on what they could give — an equalizer,’” he says.
For Proctor, who lives near campus, the bells serve as a constant reminder.
“When I’m outdoors I can hear the bells especially in the evening,says Proctor. “I don’t often have a conscious thought — I know somewhere in the back of my mind there’s joy, and there’s something peaceful about them. When I hear them, one of my thoughts is, ‘My gosh they’re still ringing!’” NV
— Mary Sasaki, who served at UNC when the bells were restored, is a freelance writer based in Oregon.