Chimemasters Provide Soundtrack in Syracuse

Resounding Tradition

For over 125 years, students have rung the Crouse Chimes, providing a sonorous soundtrack for the University community.

The bell tower inside Crouse College
For 125 years, students have rung the Crouse Chimes, providing a sonorous soundtrack for the University community. Photo by Steve Sartori.

As often as his schedule allowed, Alex Ganes ’15 climbed up Crouse College’s bell tower to toll more than 10,500 pounds of tin and copper. Using his hands and feet, he shoved himself against the wooden levers that make the 10 Crouse Chimes sing, performing tunes as old as the “Alma Mater” and as new as Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” After 15 minutes of physical madness, Ganes returns to his life as a music composition major while the last notes of “Westminster Quarters” vanish in the Syracuse air. “It’s a nice chest workout,” he said, joking.

During his time at Syracuse, Ganes lived a secret life as a member of the Chimesmasters, a student society that’s been in charge of playing the campus bells since 1989. With him as its chair, the eight-person group rang the Crouse Chimes three times a day during the school week—morning, lunchtime, and evening—and for special events. For the bells’ 125th anniversary, the Chimesmasters played a concert for the local community, reenacting the first time the chimes resounded at the University on the evening of June 3, 1889. “The chimes are part of the culture of Syracuse University,” says Professor Patrick M. Jones, director of the Setnor School of Music. “They create an aura.”

Alex Ganes ’15 pulling levers in bell tower
Photo by Steve Sartori

Music students and faculty founded the Chimesmasters society after the brothers of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, the original bell ringers, gave up the chore when they left campus in 1985. Although multiple people used to play the bells together, today the Chimesmasters tend to do the job in the solitude of the tower. “You used to not be able to do it by yourself because it was considered to be too dangerous,” Ganes says. Cellphones have made playing alone possible. But it’s understandable why students couldn’t do it in the past.

To access the chimes, the bell keepers can only enter the tower through a door in a corner of a room in Crouse College. Then, they must climb a 70-foot ladder to reach the platform where the levers are—the hard work happens here. An old stairway connects this level with the area above holding the bells. There’s also an extra floor where the Chimes­masters have their lounge: the very top of the Crouse needle.

Since the early days of Crouse College, the bells have been looking over the Syracuse University campus. Toward the end of the 19th century, John Crouse, the building’s benefactor and a University Trustee at the time, bought the first nine chimes—weighing from 375 to 3,000 pounds—from Clinton H. Meneely Bell Foundry of Troy, New York, for roughly $5,000. Crouse never saw his building finished, but he did hear the bells before his death in summer 1889. He passed away 24 days after the chimes first thundered “Carol Sweetly Carol” on the Hill. 

For decades, the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon were responsible for ringing the Crouse Chimes, except during World War II, when the Alpha Phi sorority took on the duty. John B. Churchill ’59 was the brotherhood’s pledge master when he was studying at Syracuse. Back then, the fraternity had about 50 members. Despite being a psychology major, Churchill played piano by ear and taught numerous brothers how to ring the chimes. “All the pledges had the assignment to play the bells at one time or another,” he says. “The playing of the bells was fun because you had a variety of simple tunes you could ring. But the bells were heavy, so you really had to work hard to get them to function.”

The chimes and the bell tower are a constant source of fascination and delight for those who visit Crouse College and one of the reasons I love working in the building.

In their century and a quarter of history, the Crouse Chimes have seldom been silent. They stopped ringing in 1981-82 for repairs and when the Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers stepped down as official bell keepers a few years later. Through tradition, the chimes have laced a bond between Crouse College and the rest of the campus. “The chimes and the bell tower are a constant source of fascination and delight for those who visit Crouse College and one of the reasons I love working in the building,” says Ann Clarke, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “But whether the chimes ring in times of joy or sadness, generations of students and alumni will forever remember them as part of their Syracuse University experience.”

Vintage photo of Pfeiffer and Potts playing the bells
To play, bell ringers push levers connected by cables to the bells, as demonstrated by Walter Pfeiffer (foreground) and Jim Potts G’69.

Like an old rock, the inner walls of the Crouse tower have layers of history, represented through the graffiti and signatures of those who played the chimes. Legend says that the late radio and television personality Dick Clark ’51, a Delta Kappa Epsilon brother, etched his name on the surface. For the past 20-something years, an old, yellowed notebook has kept record of all visitors to the tower.

A Chimesmaster's responsibilities include adding two songs every month to the ever-growing collection of bell-arranged tunes the society keeps. For example, Chimemaster Rebekah Timerman ’17 arranged “Call Me in the Afternoon” by Half Moon Run and “Say Something” by A Great Big World. As a personal trademark, each Chimesmaster also plays a unique five-note rhythm during every bell-ringing session. “We play the ‘Westminster Quarters’ first, just to mark what hour it is, and then we play our rhythms, so if there happens to be a Chimesmaster who’s listening they can know who it is,” Timerman says.

Alex Ganes, former chair of the Chimesmasters, was Timerman’s gateway into the organization. Working as a teaching assistant in an ear training course, Ganes saw talent in Timerman and Wilhelm and took them up the Crouse tower at the end of the fall semester to show them around. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Timerman says. How Ganes became involved with the group as a first-year student was serendipitous, too. It all started when he accidentally heard an across-the-hallway conversation between two members of the society. “I just heard two people whispering ‘Chimesmasters,’ and I knew it was my moment,” he says. Ganes tried to keep that aura of mystery around the society he felt when he entered Syracuse. “Some people think it’s automated, some people think the piano tuner does it,” Ganes said. “It’s interesting. It’s like, ‘Who’s ringing the bells?’ That’s the mystery of it.”

For Timerman, the beauty of anonymously sharing a song that echoes across the Hill lies in knowing that she’s giving listeners a soundtrack to their day.  “I like the idea that I’m playing,” she said, “and I can do something for the community, but they don’t know it’s me.”

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