The Bells Of Mt. Oread
May 27, 1951
Marking the culmination of six years’ worth of tireless planning and building, let alone selfless alumni generosity, thousands gathered atop Mount Oread on this day in KU history to formally dedicate the Memorial Carillon and Campanile to the 277 KU men and women who had given their lives in the Second World War.
Among those who heard the first melodious tones resonating from the tower’s 53 bells were the friends and families of the deceased. They looked out towards the Kaw Valley over Memorial Stadium, built to honor the 130 KU students and alumni who had died in the First World War. As they listened to the heartfelt praise and gratitude expressed for their departed loved ones, the moment must have been as poignant as it was picturesque. Surely no sight or experience better revealed the truth of the old adage that “freedom is never free.”
As early as February 1945, months before the final defeat of the Axis powers, KU had decided it must somehow pay tribute to the former and current students who had made (or would make) the supreme sacrifice for their country. The question, in short, was not if there was to be a memorial, but simply what kind.
To resolve the matter, KU Chancellor Deane W. Malott (’21) asked the president of the Alumni Association, Charles B. Holmes (’15), to organize a memorial committee. Holmes promptly appointed as chairman one of the University’s most prominent graduates, Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugo T. Wedell (’20), along with 24 other alumni, faculty and students. The committee’s task was to propose a project that would “serve as an enduring and fitting memorial to the sacrifices of Kansas University men and women in World War II.”
To guide their decision-making, the committee devised four criteria upon which they would evaluate each proposal. First, “The memorial should be something which would not be provided by other means.” Second, it should have a “memorial function and appeal.” Third, “It should benefit a majority of the students.” And fourth, “It should endure.”
Over time, the committee members bandied about no less than 17 different ideas of how best to memorialize the sacrifices of their fellow alumni and students. The proposals included building an outdoor swimming pool, an outdoor theater, a new field house, new dormitories, a radio center, additional tennis courts, and establishing international relations scholarships and lectureships. All of these ideas were judged deficient in one way or another, mainly because they would not benefit the majority of students nor ensure a long-standing memorial function.
Memory was the crux of the issue. The committee wanted something that would endure as a living memorial and not, after a few years, simply become another building. In other words, they sought a structure that would be a constant reminder of the price of freedom to every student who strolled the campus. The answer was simple, and represented a truly new architectural concept at American colleges and universities: Build a war memorial with absolutely no utilitarian value!
“We don’t want it to be useful,” said Jack Taylor, the project’s chief fundraiser. “You put up a union building or a dormitory, and what happens? The students see it, the years pass, and pretty soon everybody forgets all about the place being a memorial. They just use it.” The key was to build something people would never use, but would “always realize that it’s a memorial,” added Taylor. “We want succeeding generations to know what we thought of our boys and girls.”
Echoing Taylor’s thoughts, Chancellor Malott defended the non-utilitarian idea in response to a suggestion that a new field house would be the best memorial. “The Stadium was built as a World War I memorial,” noted Malott. “No one thinks, as he sits in it, about the sacrifices of several score of young men of this institution who lost their lives in that struggle. We have been determined this time that we would have a memorial, and not merely use that as an excuse to fill a need at the University.”
One of the 17 proposals was to build a tall, freestanding bell tower (or campanile), complete with a set of bells (called a carillon), played by keyboard-operated hammers. The idea for such a structure was an old one, first devised in the 1930s by Dean Olin Templin of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. (Templin appears to have had more of a Kansas pioneer heritage theme in mind, since the Second World War, naturally, had not yet occurred. The project was abandoned due to the Great Depression.) A campanile, the memorial committee’s members believed, would forever stand as a prominent, imposing fixture high atop Mount Oread. In addition, its bells would be an hourly reminder of KU’s honored dead.
“We polled leading alumni, about 400 of them” said committee member and alumni secretary Fred Ellsworth (’22), “and the voting was very heavy to a campanile.” What captured alumni attention and – more to the point – opened their checkbooks, was that a campanile was a project they could “see” and “grasp,” said Taylor, the chief fundraiser. “The trouble with something like scholarships or a swimming pool,” added Ellsworth, was that “the donors can’t quite visualize them. If you can’t visualize something, really see it in your mind, then you certainly don’t feel like giving any money for it.”
Of course, there were some who stuck to the notion that construction should be for practical purposes. These critics believed it was wasteful to spend so much time and money on something people would just look at (or listen to) from afar. They were not alone. Many American colleges and universities during the immediate postwar years were taking this very practical approach. The University of Arizona, for example, planned to build a memorial student union. Iowa State was contemplating a field house. Kansas State was thinking about a chapel. And Baker University was planning a memorial hall. Only KU, it seemed, was charting a different architectural course, imbued with a unique commemorative vision.
Undaunted by skeptics, the KU memorial committee pressed ahead. On November 7, 1945, it incorporated the University of Kansas Memorial Association to begin soliciting tax-deductible donations to build the bell tower. “This is a big, big thing for campus,” Ellsworth told the Kansas City Star, noting that “experts” called the area around the proposed location “one of the most perfect natural sites they’ve ever seen.” The news story also quoted Taylor, who added, “This thing is going to take hold of everyone’s imagination! It will be a rallying point, the school’s trade mark.”
Over the next four years, the memorial committee worked to raise the estimated $400,000 required to build the campanile and scenic roadway that would run along Mount Oread. The generosity of KU alumni surely made this job an enjoyable one. By 1951, over 8,000 people had donated $343,000 in all dollar amounts, although to finish the memorial drive, the Kansas legislature eventually had to appropriate $56,000.
The single largest private donation was $25,000, coming from the KU Endowment Association in honor of Dean Templin, who had passed away in 1943. This funding paid for the carillon’s largest instrument, a 7-ton, 7-foot-high bell tuned to F sharp. Another gift, in the amount of $100, was from Mrs. J. H. Newlin of Whittier, California, a member of KU’s very first class of 56 students that entered the University back in 1866. At 98, she had the distinction of being the oldest former student to donate to the memorial fund.
Although the campanile was to be a memorial honoring the 277 who lost their lives in World War II and the over 8,000 KU men and women who had served in some capacity, the committee agreed to accept donations “from those wishing to advance the project by memorializing some family members or organization not connected with war service.” As a result, donations poured in to honor veterans and non-veterans alike.
“Most of the bells have been contributed by family members of KU students and alumni killed in World War II, although some bells will be inscribed in memory of persons not connected with the war,” the Memorial Association later explained. “Two fraternities and two sororities will have bells, and the University Daily Kansan will have a bell in memory of former Kansan staff members whose lives were taken in the war.”
A major step in the project occurred on February 20, 1949. On that day, the John Taylor & Co. foundry, located in Loughborough, England, and in business since the 1360s, cast the first of the 53 “Kansas Bells.” Taylor was considered “the largest bell foundry in the world” and had “placed more carillons in America than any other company.” The entire contract, valued at $78,000, was, according to the News Chronicle of London, “the first big dollar order for an English bell foundry since before the war.” It would take 18 months to complete.
Back in Lawrence, on January 11, 1950, it was time to break ground for the 120 foot-high campanile that would be constructed from Kansas limestone. And six months later, on June 4, Commencement Day, the cornerstone was laid. As part of the ceremonies, University officials and Memorial Association members placed a copper box inside the cornerstone, containing dozens of KU mementos such as yearbooks, newspapers, campus maps, athletic programs, favorite songs, even Jayhawk decals.
After a long ocean journey from England to New York and then to Lawrence in three railroad boxcars, the “Kansas Bells” finally arrived on May 1, 1951. And with the campanile tower itself having been completed in November 1950, the last stage of the project – the raising of the bells – could commence. The 53-bell carillon, weighing upwards of 36 tons, was, according to the Kansas City Star, the “finest musical instrument of its kind west of Chicago.”
The six years of tireless efforts by thousands of hardworking and generous people finally culminated on May 27, 1951. It was dedication day for the Memorial Carillon and Campanile. At 4:30 p.m., the bells rang out for the first time, delighting the assembled thousands with the song “America” and, later, “Crimson and Blue.”
In his presentation address, Kansas Supreme Court Justice Hugo Wedell explained that the memorial “is offered as an expression of profound gratitude for distinguished service rendered by over 8,000 students and faculty members of this school who served in the Second World War – to preserve freedom for our people and for human beings everywhere. Of course,” he added, “it is especially a tribute to the 276 gallant soldiers who shall not pass this way again.” (The number has since risen to 277 when Second Lt. Raleigh Chase Bowlby Jr.’s name was added to the Campanile in 2005.)
KU Chancellor Malott followed the judge, and began by telling the friends and families of the deceased that “this memorial will stand forever as reminder of what they did and what they gave.” Malott then told his audience that this memorial was about more than just the past. It was also “a challenge to the future, to those generations of students who will come in succeeding classes, through scores of years, connecting always the ancient past with the distant future.” The campanile itself, concluded the Chancellor, would always stand as a “perpetual warning to the oncoming generations that eternal vigilance is required in the protection of human liberties, continuous sacrifice is demanded always, in many ways and at many times, of the intelligent and loyal citizens of this republic.”
Following these stirring words and a rifle salute for the honored dead, Master Carillonneur Anton Brees of Duke University began his dedicatory carillon recital, playing such beloved songs as “Lead, Kindly Light,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “America, the Beautiful,” the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and, of course, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
From that night in 1951 to the fall of 1993, the campanile stood, and the carillon sounded, just as its creators had intended. It became the living memorial that would, as Dr. Forrest C. Allen once remarked, “bring friends and loved ones back to the campus to renew memories of [the] imperishable acts of our heroes of this World War II.” Indeed, as early as 1950, a year before the campanile was officially dedicated, that year’s graduates were the first class to ritually pass through the tower on Commencement Day. This ceremony has now become an annual tradition, so solemn that the superstitious avoid walking through the campanile until that special day for fear they might not otherwise graduate.
In spite of these rich traditions, though, by the mid-1990s the carillon’s bells had fallen into a state of disrepair. They required extensive and expensive renovations estimated to cost approximately $425,000. What was once described as “a Stradivarius among the carillons of the world … one of the jewels in KU’s crown,” had deteriorated so much that it became unplayable.
Although the University included the carillon restoration as part of its 1987-1992 Campaign Kansas fundraising drive, only $30,000 had been raised in its behalf by 1991. Enter Keith Bunnel (’46) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As president of the Class of 1946, Bunnel had been a student member of the memorial committee that selected the carillon and campanile project in the beginning. When he received his January/February 1991 issue of the Kansas Alumni magazine, he read an article titled “A Dead Ringer?” that chronicled the carillon’s serious funding shortfall.
“That really triggered me,” Bunnel said later. He and his wife Joan soon wrote a check for the entire $425,000 needed to fully restore the carillon to its 1951 splendor. “As happens in many instances,” the Kansas Alumni magazine reported, “one substantial gift prompted others.” And soon, KU alumni nationwide had donated an additional $200,000, providing for “annual inspection and upkeep of the carillon” well into the 21st century.
On April 26, 1996, former KU student, World War II veteran, and ex-POW Martin Jones (’46) spoke as part of the rededication ceremonies for the newly restored carillon. He came to present his class’s 50-year anniversary gift of $25,905 (that provided new landscaping for the campanile’s base) and to share a “personal wartime experience.” His speech “moved many in the crowd to tears.”
A second lieutenant in World War II, Jones first described being captured during the Battle of the Bulge and then living five months as a German prisoner-of-war. He then told how his best friend from college, Robert L. “Bob” Coleman, a KU journalism major and Kansan staffer, was shot down and killed over Germany a month before VE-Day. “Bob’s name is inscribed,” Jones said, “with the names of the other Kansan staff members, on a bell purchased by the University Daily Kansan. Every time I hear the bells of our carillon, I remember Bob Coleman, Don Pollom, Glessner Reimer, and other students I knew.”
“The inscription that appears in the memorial room of the Campanile,” Jones told the audience, “is printed in your program. It reads, ‘Free government does not repose upon its citizens, but sets them in the vanguard of battle to defend the liberty of free men.’ I am thankful that the bells of our renovated carillon will ring out over the campus and remind us of those who not only were placed in the vanguard of battle, but who lost their lives defending the liberty that we all enjoy.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas