This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting the restoration and completion of the Memorial Belltower. Click the link to learn more about the history of NC State’s Legend in Stone.
Emily Caporali, like many of her fellow alumni, left NC State with lasting friendships.
What is a little more unusual, though, is that she made one very significant connection before even being admitted to the university.
In the fall of her senior year of high school, Caporali and her mother, sister and nephew traveled from Virginia to visit her brother Chris, then a student at NC State. He brought the family to the Memorial Belltower, where they were taking photos when a man in a suit appeared and offered to take a group picture.
It would turn out to be the first of many significant photos of Caporali at the Belltower.
The man who offered to take the family’s picture was Tom Stafford, the retired vice chancellor for student affairs. “He asked about our connection to NC State,” Caporali said. “My brother said he was a sophomore, and I told him I applied but hadn’t heard back yet.” Stafford then produced a key from his pocket. “He said that whoever opens the Shrine Room is bound to get into NC State — would I like to do it?”
Caporali was excited to open the room, and inside, the family was treated to a shortened version of Stafford’s legendary Belltower tour. Later, when his prediction came true and she was accepted to NC State, she wrote a thank-you letter to Stafford as part of an AP English writing assignment. He responded, inviting her to participate in an official tour once she was settled in.
The pair didn’t reconnect until Caporali’s second year at NC State, when she took a Belltower tour during an Impact Leadership Village mentor group activity. Later, she planned another tour as part of her work as a resident adviser on Centennial Campus.
“I’ve just had a great relationship with Dr. Stafford throughout college,” she said. The whole family met Stafford when Chris Caporali, a member of the Naval ROTC during his career at NC State, planned the inaugural 9/11 Memorial Run and asked Stafford to speak.
Because of her friendship with Stafford and her love of the Belltower, when it came time for Caporali to graduate with her degree in biological sciences, she knew the symbolic significance of getting a class ring and placing it in the Shrine Room overnight as part of the Alumni Association’s ring ceremony. However, a ring was an expense that she couldn’t undertake at the time, and she told Stafford via email that she would consider buying one at some point after her December 2017 graduation.
Shortly after that conversation, Caporali ran into Stafford at the Balfour ring table in Talley Student Union. She decided to go say hello and was surprised when Stafford turned to the ring representative and said, “Should we tell her?”
Knowing how meaningful a class ring was for Caporali, her friend had decided to purchase one for her — on one condition. “Dr. Stafford said he wanted my whole family to come down for the ceremony,” she said. She assured him that wouldn’t be a problem. Overwhelmed with gratitude, Caporali picked out her ring, and she was the first student at her ceremony to put her box on the ledge in the Shrine Room.
Later, she presented Stafford with a frame containing two photos of the pair: one from that first high school Belltower visit and one from when her graduation photos were taken.
“Dr. Stafford has been such a special part of my life at NC State,” Caporali said. “He wrote me a letter of recommendation when I applied to PA school.”
But the connection didn’t quite end at graduation.
In February 2018, Caporali and her boyfriend, Chase Timmons, visited Raleigh. Her brother, who is in the Navy and was stationed in Pensacola at the time, was in town, and the three met up for lunch on Hillsborough Street — parking in the visitor spots by the Belltower, naturally. As they headed up the steps, Caporali watched in surprise as Timmons turned toward the door, pulled out a key and opened the Shrine Room.
Inside sat an open box, displaying an engagement ring.
After the flurry of excitement and emotion, the questions started forming. “I was so confused!” she laughed. “We had just come into town. How did the ring get in the Belltower? How did Chase get a key?”
It had taken coordination between Timmons, Chris Caporali and — of course — Stafford to set up the ring and hand off the key. “Dr. Stafford told me, ‘Now you’ve had two rings spend time in the Belltower,’” she said.
Caporali will start the Master of Physician Assistant Medicine program at the University of Lynchburg this summer, and she and Timmons will be married in Virginia. But whenever she plans a weekend in Raleigh, no visit is complete without a stop at the Belltower.
“It’s symbolic of NC State,” Caporali said. “It was dedicated to the lives of alumni lost in World War I. This university is all about the students, and the Belltower is symbolic of that.”
The structure holds a personal meeting as well, dating back to that fall day during her senior year of high school. “I also think of Dr. Stafford when I think about the Belltower. The people you meet along the way are just as important as your education,” Caporali said. “It’s amazing how a place can mean so much.”