On any given Friday atop a narrow staircase in the Harcourt Parish Chapel, the Kenyon College Pealers are hard at work playing the church bells that have become a ubiquitous part of Kenyon life. Between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., the organization, which is made up of current students and alumni, keeps the tradition of pealing alive by playing familiar patterns and songs on the 144-year-old bells. After a pandemic hiatus, the club returned to campus last fall with plans to bring the art form into the post-pandemic world.
The practice of pealing involves playing the church bells via a series of wooden levers that correspond to different pitches. On Friday afternoons, visitors to the bell tower begin with 15 minutes of straight pealing, playing a series of repeated patterns and scales to celebrate the end of the week’s classes. For the next half hour, the pealers play tunes including hymns, Kenyon staples like “Philander Chase” and “Kokosing Farewell” and popular songs like “Call Me Maybe.” They then conclude the hour with another round of pealing.
“The Pealers have been a bit of an off-and-on tradition here at Kenyon,” explained Joshua Hertz ’25, a leader of the Pealers organization, in an email to the Collegian. The bells themselves were installed in 1879 after a large community fundraising effort, and the tradition of pealing has had an intermittent presence ever since. Though it lost momentum between the 19th and 20th centuries, pealing eventually found its way back to Gambier in 1978 when Robert Blythe ’82 founded the Kenyon College Pealers. “One can still see signatures of former Pealers in the belltower dating back to the early 20th century,” wrote Hertz’s fellow student leader Cooper Bertschi ’26 in an email to the Collegian. “Though interest in the group was lost for a time, it was revived in the 1980s and has been ringing the bells (relatively) consistently since.”
Although they use the chapel bell tower, the Pealers are not officially affiliated with Harcourt Parish. As a departmental organization, the Pealers are associated with the Department of Spiritual and Religious Life and are advised by Chaplain and Priest-in-charge of Harcourt Parish Rachel Kessler ’04. Occasionally, the organization will play the bells for significant religious observances like Good Friday, illustrating its coexistence with the Parish community.
The pandemic posed a unique challenge for the organization on account of the limited space available for social distancing in the bell tower and the communal nature of the practice. Pealers take turns playing the bells, darting around one another and shouting over the din of the chimes. Because of this, it was one of the first campus organizations to be shut down. Returning from its hiatus, the group had some difficulty finding experienced pealers to pass on the practice. “From what I’ve heard, Rev. Kessler asked our two wonderful alumni to try and get the group running again after the pandemic,” Hertz said. Bertschi elaborated: “The process of returning has been one of bringing back institutional memory. Since the organization dissolved for several years, most students with any experience in the bell tower have graduated. As such, returning to the bell tower was only possible through the instruction of two Kenyon alumni, Katie Cannon ’04 and Brian Cannon ’05, veteran Pealers who volunteered their time to bring back the years-old tradition.”
Both Hertz and Bertschi credit the oft-ridiculed all-student email list with informing them about the opportunity to join the Pealers. “As I emerged from my week of orientation and was thrown into a sea of emails, I found one to be of special interest,” Bertschi said. “After I went on that first day, I have returned every Friday since.” Hertz, who, like Bertschi, began pealing this year after receiving an email about the organization, credits his musical background with enabling him to learn quickly. “It helped me to do more advanced stuff on the bells faster and write original songs for us to play. But what I want everyone to know about our organization is that the bells are easy to learn and no musical experience is required.”
Bringing pealing back to the Hill has proven to be a rewarding enterprise for Hertz and Bertschi, who ring the bells alongside a growing cohort of regulars from all walks of campus life. “I chose to keep going because ringing the chapel bells is such a fantastic, unique experience,” said Bertschi. “No matter who you are — student, faculty, staff or even alumni passing through Gambier — you’re welcome to join us in the bell tower. Stop in, say hello and be a part of the century-and-a-half-long tradition that’s a staple of Kenyon culture.”