A Carillon of Bells

An iconic piece of the Baylor skyline, Pat Neff Hall has stood watch over the Waco campus for more than 80 years. For the first 50 years of its vigil, the Cullen F. Thomas Chimes inside Pat Neff’s tower were used to call and dismiss classes as well as play beautiful hymns and songs and, of course, echo a timely sound across campus at the top of every hour. Modeled after the chimes used at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, the chimes were commissioned through a gift from the widow of Cullen F. Thomas, a former University trustee. Eventually, the decades of service took their toll, and the worn-down electronic tubular bell chimes fell silent.

The silence was not long lived, however. Thanks to the generosity of the McLane family in 1988, Baylor was able to dedicate a new carillon to replace the chimes inside Pat Neff, which is still in use today. An uncommon musical apparatus in modern-day America, a carillon is a pitched percussion instrument that is played utilizing a set of lever-like keys and foot pedals. It comprises at least 23 cast-bronze bells that are arranged in a chromatic series and tuned to produce harmony when multiple bells are struck at the same time. The McLane Carillon consists of 48 cast-bronze bells and was produced by the Paccard Bell Foundry of Annecy, France. The weight of the bells range from 29 pounds to 4,370 pounds, with a total weight of over 22 tons.

When originally delivering the bells, the ship carrying them actually overshot their scheduled stop in Houston and carried the bells all the way to Mexico before realizing the mistake. Once this error was discovered, the ship returned to Houston. From there, the bells were safely transported off the ship and delivered to Waco intact, though not without a fair bit of worry on Baylor’s end.

Each of the bells is inscribed with literary and biblical quotations selected by the McLane family, as well as quotes from each of the University Presidents up to the late 1980s when the instrument was installed, including the famous Samuel Palmer Brooks quote: “Because of what Baylor has meant to you in the past, because of what she will mean to you in the future, oh, my students, have a care for her.” 

There is even a specific bell dedicated to the faculty of the University that bears a quote from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which in middle English reads: “And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” All of the quotations are listed on a plaque in the entryway of Pat Neff Hall.

The person who plays the carillon is known as a carillonneur, and enrolled piano students within the School of Music are given the opportunity to take carillon lessons as a secondary study. The 48 bells of the McLane Carillon provide the carillonneur a compass of four octaves and place it among the fewer than 200 carillons on the entire North American continent with a range of four octaves or more. The lower two octaves of bells are equipped with electronically controlled clappers that play the Westminster Chimes, which strike the hour, and the other melodies that play on regular intervals throughout the day.

Despite being tucked away inside the Pat Neff tower, the McLane Carillon has serenaded thousands of Baylor students over the years, sending hymns, Christmas carols and fight songs alike pealing across campus. The sound of bells has become as synonymous with the University as the iconic red bricks of which it’s made.