The Man Behind the Bell

Every Colby-Sawyer student knows the cupola bell on top of Colgate Hall rings three times a year: Commencement, Convocation and Mountain Day. The college community is aware that the sound of the bell indicates the start of each of these momentous occasions. What most people do not know, however, is the person responsible for the bell ringing has done so for the past 25 years.

In June of 1994, Joe Stearns arrived to campus as the new overnight assistant in the campus safety department. When Convocation rolled around that fall, he was told that he would ring the bell at the start of the event. Joe says, “I think that nobody wanted to go up there. Being the new guy, I didn’t know, and then it became my baby.” In fact, in the past 25 years, Joe has only missed ringing the bell one time. During Commencement in 2006, the Director of Campus Safety was presented with the Town-Gown award and therefore Joe’s duties took him out of the bell tower so he could be in charge of the procession and safety at the event. Joe remembers, “Another officer went to the tower and the bell chimed once and then it stopped. We radioed him and asked why he only rang it once. Apparently, when the officer started the process, the arm that holds the rope broke and the rope got jammed.”

Misfortune with the bell has only happened once while Joe was on duty in the tower. He said, “During a Convocation, I had instructions to start ringing. I pulled the rope, it rang once and the rope came slithering down through the stairwell. I went upstairs, unlocked the padlocks, removed the hatch, climbed the ladder, sat on the side of the bell and rang it with my legs.” Joe remembers, “It was also when the bell tower wasn’t pigeon proofed yet. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a hazmat situation. Shortly after, they hired someone to clean up four inches of pigeon waste.” There is now chicken wire lining the cupola to prevent uninvited feathered friends.

After being in charge of ringing the bell for all of these years, Joe admits there is definitely a technique to the process. He says, “I restrict the full motion of the bell to eliminate the clapper from striking both sides of the bell. I do this by not allowing the momentum of the bell to go in full motion from side to side. I pull up short on the rope to prevent the clapper from striking the opposite side of the bell, which allows for the single bell vs. two shorter strikes. I do this in order to assist people with their foot timing while marching or walking. It has also worked with some of the bagpipers over the years.”

Due to his duties on Mountain Day, Joe has never been able to hike up the mountain for fun. He is stationed either at the base of the mountain, in case of emergencies, or here on campus. And although he has never had the chance to take part in the hike, he would not have it any other way. He says, “I like the tradition and the philosophy of Mountain Day. It has been a good experience ringing the bell for all of these years.”

by Donna Long