Tower Bells Declare Day of Gracious Living

Today is what we call the Day of Gracious Living—DOGL for short. It is one of K’s most cherished traditions: a surprise, chosen day off in late spring when classes are canceled and students can take buses to Lake Michigan for a day at the beach. There are a lot of remarkable things about the day, and one of the most remarkable is the way it’s announced to the campus: with a set of very special tower bells.

Students ringing the tower bells to announce the Day of Gracious Living
Ian McKnight practices ringing the tower bells for the Day of Gracious Living.

When I decided to come to K, I never imagined that I would become a bell ringer. I stumbled upon the hobby almost by accident—walking past Stetson Chapel on a Monday evening during my first week on campus and poking my head in to investigate the strange ringing from the tower. Expecting to find a machine, I was surprised to discover a group of eight people standing in a circle and pulling on ropes to ring tower bells that were far above them. This was my first introduction to the world of change ringing, and I kept coming back.

Change ringing is a very old, very British way of ringing bells. The chapel bells are heavy (our largest is just a hair over a thousand pounds), yet they are hung in a way that makes them easy to ring without any electronics (and, disappointingly, involves much more time with both feet on the floor than most people imagine). Rather than songs, the bells ring in preset mathematical patterns, which was the whole reason that T. Jefferson Smith, a math professor, worked to bring them to Stetson Chapel in the 1980s.

Our bells were cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, which cast, among others, the Liberty Bell, Big Ben, and the bells at the National Cathedral in Washington. Though they are common in Britain, there are only about 50 other sets of bells for change ringing in all of North America, which means that K is, oddly enough, known as a sort of powerhouse in the world of American change ringing.

Outside the Church Bell Foundry, which constructed K's tower bells
Ian McKnight visited the original manufacturer of the Liberty Bell, which also constructed K’s tower bells.

My ringing journey started on the Quad on an otherwise ordinary Monday evening, and it did not stop there. In fact, it has stuck with me through my whole K experience. A Capitol Hill internship in Washington meant ringing every week in a tower above Pennsylvania Avenue. Ringing was part of what led me to study abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland, which is home to another tower and a band of ringers that welcomes K students with open arms. Ringing has taken me from a tower high above Wall Street in Manhattan to tiny British villages and from the shadow of Edinburgh Castle on Christmas Eve to the streets of Chicago in the spring. I never saw it coming, but ringing has been one of the highlights of my K experience, and it is a perfect example of the way that the K-Plan lets you find your niche—even if it is a bit esoteric.

The highlight of the year for K’s student ringers, however, is the Day of Gracious Living. The exact day is always a surprise, yet everybody knows that it must, at some point, come. This can lead to disappointment if a promising weather forecast raises hopes. Occasionally, people will gather on the Quad in anticipation, and, after the bells sit silent for the evening, sulk back to the library to finish their homework. If it happens later than expected, the tension on campus is palpable.

Finally though, on some glad afternoon, at a set time known only by a select few people, one of the ringers gives the traditional order to the others in the tower: “Look to! Treble’s going! She’s gone!” and sets the whole spectacle in motion.

Outside, people cheer. For those out of earshot, word spreads fast. Minutes later, bells still ringing, the email arrives, full of information on the coming picnic on the quad and bus trips to the beach. The first line, though, is the one that really matters:

“The bells are ringing! The wait is over! The Chosen Day has come at last!”

Ian McKnight is a senior student representative at Kalamazoo College.