A Family Legacy Chimes at Five O’Clock

Erin Nason ’19

Following a 59-step spiral journey up the bell tower of Gunnison Memorial Chapel, one can find the students ringing the Bacheller Memorial Chimes. Tucked away within the stone-lined chamber, student bell-ringers are enveloped by the names and graduation dates of former bell-ringers inscribed in plaster on the walls. 

The job of ringing the beloved chimes is only offered to between three and five students per semester. Students begin with a three-day bell-ringing crash course and then are considered “in-training” for the duration of their first year. 

When talking with current bell ringers James Merrell ’19 and his sister Elise Merrell ’21 about how they discovered this opportunity on campus, James reveals that, “a lot of my family members went to St. Lawrence, I think I’m the 18th person.” His grandfather Edgar Merrell ’51 was the first member of the family to learn to ring the bells here at St. Lawrence. At that time, ringing the bells provided his grandfather and fellow bell ringers both full tuition and housing in a room located within the bell tower. Extending the melodic legacy, James’ father, three of his uncles, and his older brother, all followed in Edgar’s footsteps during their time at St. Lawrence. 

Although most Laurentians recognize the chimes, few know the origins of the campus tradition started with a love story. When alumnus Irving Bacheller, Class of 1882, donated the chimes in 1926, the bells symbolized his call for love of a young classmate whom he later wed. Inscribed on the largest bell he wrote, “To Ann Bacheller: Musician, Wife, Comrade. My love for her put a new song in my heart. Therefore, let the singing of these bells be the voice of my gratitude.”

With the exception of pre-recorded broadcasts from 2013 to 2015 following the steeple fire and repairs, the chimes have always been played by hand. The traditional playlist opens with the songs “Westminister Chimes” followed by “Oxford Changes.”  

“We are very free to play whatever we want,” James says once they have performed the opening set, and says his favorite part is “being able to come up with my own songs.” He lights up as he explains how he uses a computer program to compose his own original music and adapts contemporary music for the chimes. 

When asked about his most memorable covers, he replies, “The worst was definitely a cover of ‘Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)’ by Silentó, and one of my favorites is ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ by John Williams from the movie soundtrack of Harry Potter.” Each set concludes with “Chapel Bells, A Tribute” followed by the alma mater. 

Elise is the next Merrell to follow her family’s tradition, and is currently in-training. When asked about her family’s history of bell ringing, she recounts how her father was drawn back to the bell tower during Reunion Weekend and that “he and a whole bunch of his old bell-ringing buddies all went up and did little duets.” With a smile, she says, “I definitely think it’s cool looking around the walls of the bell tower seeing our family’s names engraved. I would hope for that [bell-ringing] to continue for my kids, especially if they ended up like most of my family at St. Lawrence.”

For different people, 5 o’clock in the afternoon has many meanings. It can indicate the end of a long workday, the start of a meal, a favorite news program, or even a meeting with friends for Happy Hour. Here at St. Lawrence, 5 o’clock commences the chiming of the Bacheller Memorial Chimes and for James and Elise Merrell, continuing a family legacy.

James Merrell '19 ringing the 5 o'clock chimes.