Repaired Carillon Brings Hourly Chimes to Campus
This article appeared in the March 1, 1994 issue of the UAF Sun-Star by Lance Andree
The bells are tolling again. Students who have found themselves in the vicinity of the Gruening Building lately have undoubtedly heard UAF's recently repaired chime system announcing the turn of the hour.
The bells are actually the sound of a Maas-Rowe symphonic carillon, stowed away in a little room above the Davis Concert Hall and amplified by eight speakers atop the Gruening Building. The carillon has been out of commision since last summer, and workers finally got it up and running last week.
The chimes now sound every hour on the hour, between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily, with a tune which simulates the sound of London's Big Ben. As of Friday, the carillon will be heard on upper campus as well, since it has been wired to speakers on the West Ridge.
Though most students are now aware of the hourly symphony which resonates from the center of campus, few probably know of the long history behind the carillon.
Geophysical Institute electronics shop supervisor John "Bennie" Benevento, on the other hand is very aware of the system's legacy. He has become zealously dedicated to the carillon over the years.
According to Benevento, the James E. Barrack Memorial Carillon was donated to the university in 1955 by Mrs. James Barrack after the former's death. It was placed in what is now Signers' Hall with the speaker system sounding out from the top of the Eielson Building.
Today, students can still see the plaque in the Great Hall of the Fine Arts Complex dedicating the carillon to James E. Barrack and acknowledging the donation by Mrs. Barrack.
Yet though the carillon was state-of-the-art when it was built, Benevento said that time eventually took its toll.
"Over the years, the system deteriorated to a point to where it no longer worked." Benevento said.
Rather than discard the machine, the university asked Benevento to work on it.
"I fell in love with that thing," he said. "It was built in the 1940s, but it was a magnificent design. We put hundreds of hours into fixing it."
Bill Zito, who also works at the Geophysical Institute, became involved in the project as well.
"It's very outdated, but back then it was really a hot item," Zito said.
Zito and Benevento adopted the carilllon, and developed a respect for the importance it held to the family that donated it.
"It's really a labor of love," Benevento said. "It would have been really easy to just throw it away, if you take the heart out of it."
Instead, they salvaged components which could still be used and replaced the dead ones with more modern parts. As a result, the "heart" of the system—the original clock, the keyboard and original suspended chimes—lives in the current system.
"We resurrected the chime system and the player piano," Benevento said. "We still use the basic system, and to my knowledge we have the only system that old that's still in use."
When Signers' Hall was remodeled in 1984, the carillon was moved to its current location in the Great Hall. Though the original player that once rang out such tunes as "Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" is no longer operable, the songs were recorded on a metal tape recorder and can be played back over the system on occasions such as graduation and commencment.
Also, the original keyboard is still intact, and live music can be played on the system through it. UAF Associate Professor of Music Dave Stech has on occasion played pieces on the keyboard which have been heard across the campus.
Benevento said the system "burned out" again this summer. He said that he had to wait until recently to get it working.
"There's no funding to keep the system going", said Benevento."So we just finally had some spare time, we got it running again."
Benevento said the ringing of the chimes is expected to continue for the rest of the school year, providing all goes well. He sees the maintenance to the machine as more than a simple cost-benefit analysis—it would be cheaper to scrap the aged system altogether and buy a new one. But he feels it's a responsibility of UA to the Barrack family and the continuity to keep it running.
He also believes the university has much to gain by taking care of the carillons.
"If we show the community that we really care about bequeathed gifts to the university, we'll see a lot more come through," he said. "If you show good stewardship and you care, somebody else will be more likely to give, too."