Michigan State University updates memorial bell tower
East Lansing — The John W. Beaumont Memorial Tower isn’t the tallest building on Michigan State University’s campus, but it casts the biggest shadow.
Campus mythology holds that students aren’t officially Spartans until they share a midnight kiss beneath the 104-foot-tall structure.
Ray McLellan is concerned more with the sounds of Beaumont than its stories. He believes Spartans need to hear the bells being played from atop the tower before they can leave East Lansing as alumni.
As university carillonneur, it’s McLellan’s responsibility to make the 49 bells inside Beaumont Tower sing.
Climbing 73 steps every Tuesday, he takes a seat on a wooden bench in front of the carillon. Wooden handles and pedals are connected to the bells above via metal wires. Each time McLellan presses a pedal or strikes a handle on the carillon with his clenched fists, the motion is carried through the wires, moving a clapper that strikes the corresponding bell.
“I can’t believe how beautiful the sound is with the new clappers,” McLellan said.
Officials from a Dutch bell manufacturer installed new clappers — the piece inside a bell that strikes it to make a sound — at a cost of $63,000 in October. It’s resulted in a softer, more pleasant sounding ring from the tower, McLellan said.
Beaumont Tower came to dominate MSU’s north campus skyline because of an alumnus, John W. Beaumont. MSU was looking at constructing new buildings in Campus Circle after the collapse of College Hall in 1918.
The school’s alumni association wanted to preserve the circle as “sacred space.” Beaumont proposed building a memorial tower on the site of College Hall, MSU’s first building, with the notion that it might discourage other development in the oldest part of the campus.
Beaumont and his wife, Alice Lord Burrows Beaumont, supported the creation of the memorial tower, which was completed in 1928 and dedicated the following year. Beaumont missed the dedication due to illness. He saw the tower in person only once, during his last visit to campus in 1937, according to archival records. He died in 1941.
Nick Frederick, a fifth-year senior, gave in to his carillon curiosity over the summer. A pianist who began lessons at 7 years old, the Owosso native always wondered how playing the carillon would compare. He recently got the opportunity to play the actual carillon, having spent some time on the practice instrument on the first floor of the tower.
“The difference was mostly the spacing,” Frederick said. “I have muscle memory for the piano keys so I don’t have to look down. With the carillon, the black note levers are higher than white note levers, and it messes with the muscle memory.”
The size of McLellan’s audience varies depending on the time of year. Sometimes, he’s alone atop the tower, playing only for pedestrians on their way to the library or the MSU Museum. Other times, a crowd is granted access by MSU’s Tower Guard, a student group of volunteers who exclusively holds the keys to Beaumont.
Jufang Wang, an education major, was invited to try out the carillon. She stepped up to the instrument and pulled down on one of its heavier handles. From left to right, the handles become easier to move because they correspond to progressively smaller bells. Beaumont’s largest bell weighs more than two tons, its smallest just 15 pounds.
“The back part of the instrument is really interesting,” Wang said, pointing to the line of wires that rises from the carillon to the bells above.
Among the collection of old photographs in the carillon room is a letter dated Oct. 19, 1928, signed by university officials.
In it, officials thanked the Beaumont’s for the tower, which, they said, “will stand as an inspiration for generations of Michigan State College men and women, keeping ever fresh the wonderful heritage of tradition which surrounds the spot where agricultural education was born.”