As a student walking through campus in between classes here at North Dakota State, it is almost impossible not to hear loud bells. But did you know that those aren’t real bells? Although the bells may be fake, the struggle to keep them working, and working consistently, is a real struggle and a tale and a half in and of itself.
In a letter written to NDSU President Loftsgard on June 8, 1976, Robert B. Parrot (Bob) said,
“We are certain that it will be a marvelous addition to this school and will bring much happiness to the students and faculty members for years to come.”
Bob and his wife Paula (Verne) Parrot donated $12,100 in 1976 for a new state of the art clarion system that would chime throughout the campus.
Bob and Paula both graduated from NDSU in 1935. Described in the Bison Briefs of 1976 as being “listed in (the) ‘Who’s Who of America’” Bob was something else. Later in a cutline Bob, photographed in 1915, was described as such, “Bob is the one leaning suavely against the balustrade.” Needless to say, Bob and Paula were a big deal.
And don’t think that their donation wasn’t a big deal. $12,100 was roughly the cost of three brand new cars in 1976.
The speakers ordered in June 1976 consisted of “49 bells and the supporting electronic circuitry; a custom keyboard console — touch sensitive; an automatic programming clock; Westminster chimes with the complete 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and full hour strike; power failure indicator; the supporting required amplification system; monitor speaker; interior speaker; two exterior projection loudspeakers.” Alright, catch your breath.
The clarion system was supposed to be ready by Homecoming weekend of 1976, which was Oct. 1 and 2, 1976.
According to President Loftsgard in a letter dated Dec. 21, 1976 to Ms. Nancy Bennett of customer relations for the Verdin Company, the university held out the last payment due to installation problems with substituting loudspeakers instead of the newly designed exterior speakers they were promised.
“The reason for not making the full payment at this time is that no explanation whatsoever has been given to me by your company concerning the substitution of loudspeakers …” According to President Loftsgard the whole situation was, “a mystery to me.”
The Verdin Company had some troubles, which included the lack of several components and the aforementioned Westminster chimes didn’t work.
Bob sent a personal letter dated Oct. 7, 1976 to the Verdin Company in which he states,
“I would like to establish the fact that Ms. Parrot and I are extremely disappointed …”
He later scolded the company for setting the installation and testing so close to the planned Oct. 1 and 2 dedication dates. According to Bob’s letter the Verdin Company delivered the clarion system between “9:00 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. on September 30.”
Bob later said,
“I would like to refresh your memory with the fact that Dr. Loftsgard was inclined to purchase similar equipment from another supplier than the Verdin Company.”
We need to hit the rewind button though, because the early 1980s wasn’t the first time the bells fell silent.
In a Spectrum article from Oct. 29, 1954 “’Old Main’ Chimes No Longer Sound; ‘We Wonder Why?’” it is discussed that the original bells which were housed in Old Main’s east tower had stopped chiming. These bells were purchased by the Little Theatre Company “several years ago” and had fallen into disrepair in what the writer can only guess was, “Spring 1953.”
The last line reads:
“Why haven’t the chimes been heard lately? No one seems to know.”
We requested the associate director of facilities management, Brent DeKrey, to try and locate the old bells in Old Main, but they were not to be found, seemingly missing without a trace.
The bells would remain silent for what we can only assume is around 20 years until a ‘Bob’ would come along and suave his way from “The Who’s Who of America” to make a rather large donation to install a clarion system that would bring joy for years to come — except it only lasted a half a decade or so.
In 1989, a Spectrum article outlined that the bells had again fallen into disrepair and were no longer operational. This is backed up again by a Spectrum article from May 15, 1990 which stated at the time that the bells were still in need of repair and had “(p)roblems with the electronic control unit located in the Memorial Union …”
A Spectrum article from Sept. 21, 1999 titled, “Chimes Will Ring Once Again,” tells us that the chime system fell into disrepair in the early ’80s. After a student government campaign to fund a new system to be put in raised $17,000, the bells were rededicated Oct. 9, 1999.
Since then, the bells haven’t worked only once, a brief amount of time during the Memorial Union’s remodeling. During which construction workers accidentally “cut the wires to the bells …” according to Steve Winfrey, the former director of the Memorial Union.
As you walk from class to class during your tenure here at NDSU, remember those old fake bells. The story behind them is a story of heated arguments between company and customer, betrayal and coming together to impact future NDSU students. Although Mr. and Mrs. Parrot may not have seen this in the future for their contribution to NDSU, here we are in 2017 and the bells indeed chime on.