Every Friday afternoon, the Church of the Holy Spirit’s bells toll a medley of tunes, from the nostalgic “Kokosing Farewell” to the Harry Potter theme song “Hedwig’s Theme.” Students strolling down Middle Path — listening to the bells, happy to be done with classes — may not pause to consider who’s behind the bells: the student organization aptly named “The Pealers,” after the verb “to peal,” or ring bells.
“I’m very pleased that is a legacy that has carried on,” Robert Blythe ’82, the founder of the Pealers, said. “There’s so many towers that have bells, real cast bells, that are silent. No one wants to spend the money on maintaining the mechanism to play, so it’s so easy just to hang a couple of big loud speakers up in a tower and play the recording of something. You got the real thing.”
The Pealers, who carry on Blythe’s bell-ringing passion, have been a steady and welcoming presence on campus since they began in 1983. They perform on Fridays from 4 to 5 p.m. and at Kenyon ceremonies such as convocation, matriculation, honors’ day, baccalaureate and commencement. The organization has changed a bit throughout the decades, most notably in a shift from playing Episcopal hymns to more secular songs from films and pop music, such as Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit “Call Me Maybe.”
Head Pealer Carolyn Ten Eyck ’18, a music major, began pealing last semester and said it’s an easy skill to pick up, especially if one has experience playing the piano.
Despite the fact that pealing is now part of Kenyon’s weekly routine and major collegiate ceremonies, the activity wasn’t always a tradition on the Hill. There is little to no documentation of pealers at Kenyon before 1978, and it appears the chimes had not been routinely played since the 1920s.
In 1978, Blythe arrived on campus and revamped the chapel’s chimes. “It really wasn’t clear to me when the last time the bells had been played seriously before me [was],” he said. “All the pieces were there [but] they had either broken or gotten undone or had fallen down.” He set to work fixing the chime’s infrastructure, and soon had the bells operating again.
Blythe’s passion for the clang of real bells comes from his childhood in Springfield, Ill. His father was a general contractor and oversaw the construction of a chapel across the street from Blythe’s childhood home. His older brother and sister even helped hang the smallest bells in the tower, and he remembers that the sound of the bells emanating from the building fostered in him a love of pealing.
When Blythe arrived at Kenyon, one of the first things he did was ask if he could explore the bells in the chapel. When he scaled the steep, winding staircase to the church’s upper levels he found the chimes in rough shape, as they had not been played routinely in decades. Blythe took it upon himself to spruce up the space and make some repairs, and soon he became the bell-ringer for the church’s services and later on for Kenyon events.
The chimes, as they are technically referred to, were hung on June 7, 1879, after major fundraising and community support allowed the Church of the Holy Spirit to purchase the 10 bells. Harkening back to a British tradition of pealing, the first song ever performed on the bells was “Cambridge,” an English hymn.
Today, the Pealers and their performances don’t garner complaints nor do the Westminster chime that issues automatically from the tower every quarter hour.
Yet back in the 1880s pealing was critiqued by a vehement, vocal minority. At the time, Gambier resident Peter Neff lived a mere 700 feet from the Church of the Holy Spirit in what is today’s Finn House, and hated the bells. He wrote a fiery pamphlet a year after the bells were installed entitled “Gambier’s Latest Scandal,” and later filed a lawsuit against the Village that resulted in the bells being silenced at night when the Neffs were at home. Some students may share a similar opposition to the bells, Ten Eyck said; the social media forum Yik Yak has showed a split opinion on the bells. She paraphrased her impressions of Yik Yak’s thoughts, saying, “Half the time it’s like, ‘This is cool,’ and half the time it’s like, ‘This is so annoying; I hate it,’” she said.
Anyone can join the Pealers. This communal aspect of the organization is something a former pealer, Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt ’97, sees as a welcoming quirk to this musical group.
“The fact that you don’t have to have any qualifications to do it has always struck me as uniquely Kenyon,” Heidt said. “It’s hard to imagine many campuses where a group of people is allowed to go up into a strange room in a tower of their chapel and make sounds that the entire campus can hear, no matter what their qualifications are.”