At 2 p.m. this afternoon, stop what you’re doing and you’ll hear them.
Bowdoin’s chapel bells, though they rarely ring, represent tradition and school pride for many alumni who return to Brunswick.
The current playlist, which consists of about 25 songs, has barely changed since the bells were installed in 1923. Left to the College in the will of William Martin Payson, Class of 1874, the 13 Payson Memorial Chimes were originally played manually through a system of levers pulled by rope.
“Each lever required its own pressure because the clapper springs had all aged differently. Playing evenly was difficult,” Eben W. Graves ’67 wrote in a letter, to Bowdoin Magazine in 2003, recounting his campus job as chime-ringer.
“I was away my junior year and didn’t take the job my senior year. The chimes were silent,” Graves wrote. “My music sheets were still in the tower a couple years after graduation, which made me wonder if anyone ever rang the bells, the old way, after me.”
Indeed, Graves was be the last to manually play the bells, which were fitted in 1967 with a mechanical controller that rolls through paper sheet music.
“Bowdoin was a glee club sort of school. I mean, it still is,” said Delmar Small, the budget and equipment manager for the Music Department, “Everyone knew those songs like the alma mater and the Bowdoin Pines.”
Small, the man in charge of musical instrument maintenance and repair on campus, serves as the keeper of the bells, making sure they are chimed at the right times of the day and choosing the play-list for Convocation and on-campus weddings.
In 2003 a digital controller took its place.
“Essentially it’s like iTunes,” laughed Small. “It does the same thing the paper did, but it’s a little easier and a little more automatic. It’s like iTunes with a timer.”
The only time the chimes have been removed from the Chapel’s towers was in 2003, when they were shipped to Cincinatti, Ohio for maintenance. That year two more bells were added to increase their range, which, until then, could not cover the octave and a half necessary for songs like “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The Payson Chimes now ring infrequently. They are heard mostly at special occasions like Commencement, Convocation, Weddings, and most recently, on Friday afternoons.
"It was instituted as a call for meditation,” explained Small, who said the idea was proposed by the Office of Student Affairs and the Health Center, who wanted to “bring some sanity to student life,” said Small.
Now, every Friday at 2 p.m., the chimes play “Tis a Gift to be Simple.”
Most students remember an even more special occasion: the bells rang in the middle of the night during Ivies last year as a student prank.
“It was a classic stunt,” laughed Small. “There was no break-in exactly—nobody forced a door. The thing is the controller is housed in the rear balcony for which the door was locked. They must have scaled the balcony, which if you look at it is pretty scary.”
As a result, Small said, the chapel’s security has increased and the balcony is now kept locked.
While students in the surrounding bricks may not have been too pleased with the late-night wake up, they now have little to worry about in the mornings due to a complaint by a past Appleton resident.
“They used to start earlier in the morning, but, at the request of a student living in Appleton, now they start at nine o’clock instead of seven o’clock,” said Small.
“It’s a tradition for those who leave and come back,” said Small of the chimes’ significance for alumni. “With that daily quarter ring people get a little bit sentimental. It reminds them of when they were here in Appleton too.”