Assistant Features Editor
When tour groups stop on Blanchard lawn, guides often direct their attention to the bell tower at the building’s peak. A guide might mention that the bell it houses has become the herald of engagements and marriages, but this has not always been the case.
The bell that couples ring today was not present at the founding of the college, according to the Wheaton archives; it was purchased in 1872 to replace the original, cracked bell.The cost of the new bell totaled $500, all of which was raised through donations from alumni and friends.
A distinct engraving on the surface states the casting date, the school’s name and the Wheaton motto in Latin. For any curious musicians, this 1,000-pound bell tolls in B-flat.
Climbing the tower and tolling the bell to celebrate relationship milestones did not actually become an established tradition until the mid-20th century. Originally, the bell functioned as an alarm clock for students, ringing at 5 a.m., again at each meal, at the start of every class and at 10 p.m. for lights out.
This schedule was only interrupted once, when a few mischievous Wheaties tied a calf to the rope, causing the bell to ring all night with the weight. The special occasions for tolling at that time were to call the local fire department and to signal a funeral, during which the bell would ring out the age of the deceased.
As the years passed, the bell began to serve as a witness to history. It rang in 1898 to announce the Spanish-American War, in 1918 to mark the armistice of the First World War and more recently in 2011 to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
During the beginning of the 20th century, the administration finally agreed to allow couples to ring the bell for engagements and marriages, as well as for sports victories. After wins in football and basketball, the bell would ring to announce the team’s total point score. The latter is no longer a part of college tradition.
Today, going up the bell tower is a rite of passage for many Wheaton couples, but it does not come without preparation. Permission must be obtained three days prior to the ringing from the SAO and is granted through an official “Authorization for Tower Bell Ringing” form. This document lists the procedures for the celebration: three sets of seven rings for an engagement and the reverse for a wedding. The bell may not be rung on Sunday, and only six members of the party are allowed in the tower.
Every inch of the tower is covered in signatures from past couples, some as old as 1900. Many couples have even left memorabilia, including President Philip Ryken and his wife.
“I’ve heard the framed photo that we left is now in a photo album up there,” Ryken said, noting that it would be an interesting artifact for future couples to look for.
Even pairs consisting of one Wheaton and one non-Wheaton student have rung the bell. Ryken remembers seeing a shirt that combined Wheaton and Taylor apparel into a single shirt.
“It’s a sacrilege,” he joked.
Even though Blanchard underwent a remodeling and many tower signatures were covered up, students can still see a relic from these earlier engagements in Blanchard Hall. According to Director of Student Activities Steve Ivester, there is a slab of the original tower wall in the philosophy conference room on which observant viewers may spot the signatures of Billy and Ruth Graham.
The Valentine’s season and the coming spring are sure to bring more Wheaton engagements, sending more couples up the tower.
Photo and Banner Credit: Allison Freet
Printed in the February 15, 2013 issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to email@example.com.