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Sharing a Key to NC State’s Past

Stafford speaks to tour group in shrine room
Tom Stafford’s Memorial Belltower tours include a stop in the Shrine Room. Photo by Marc Hall.

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.

The key itself seems a little surprising, given the rather imposing door.

Heavy and bronze — with a patina that doesn’t obscure the words “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares” — this door is set in the base of a formidable 115-foot-tall structure made of hundreds of tons of stone, whose cornerstone dates to 1921. Surely, opening its lock to enter NC State University’s Memorial Tower would require something equally grand and possibly ornate?

In reality, the Belltower key that Tom Stafford pulls from his pocket looks identical to thousands of small gold-colored keys to offices and residence hall rooms across campus.

But in the hands of Stafford, who spent three decades as NC State’s vice chancellor for student affairs, that key seems to take on a bit of Wolfpack magic. Whether surprising a tour group with fun facts and stories, or surprising someone who’s taking a photograph at the tower with their own opportunity to turn the key, Stafford opens a portal to NC State’s past.

A Beacon for the Wolfpack Community

Grains of Time members peaking around Belltower doors
The Grains of Time took tour number 527 in April.

The Belltower surprise business is particularly brisk in April and May. As spring commencement approaches, the site becomes a beacon for excited soon-to-be-graduates in their red, or sometimes black, caps and gowns. As groups contemplate the best photograph angles and jockey for prime position on steps, benches and ledges — their hands flashing thumbs-up or wolfhead signs — Stafford loves to walk up and provide students with a peek inside the tower.

Megan Keller was among those key recipients in early May. Days away from earning her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, she stood in cap and gown posing for photos being taken by a couple of friends when Stafford handed her the key. She marveled at the chance to reflect in the interior Shrine Room and have a portrait made in the doorway.

“It was amazing,” Keller said. “I never had a chance to do one of the tours, but I knew the key photos were a thing. I didn’t expect this at all. Dr. Stafford definitely got my surprised face — really cool.”

Spring is also peak season for Belltower tours, which Stafford has been leading since February 2008 — “tours” being a bit of a misnomer. The possible stops being limited, he does a little work to stretch each tour to about an hour and a half.      

Not that Stafford minds. He revels in a session that’s a history lesson, NC State pep rally and Wizard-of-Oz style peek behind the curtain rolled into one. Across the seasons, he has conducted well over 500 tours of this most hallowed place for students, faculty and staff, alumni and more; on May 9, members of the Alumni Association’s Forever Club took Nos. 540 and 541, to be exact.

“People ask me all the time why I keep doing this,” said Stafford, who officially retired in 2012 but still spends quite a bit of time on campus or at NC State events. “Well, while what I do stays the same, what’s fun for me is that every single group is different. I get lots of satisfaction from doing something that causes other people to feel good. I love to hear that someone learned something and enjoyed the time.

“I’ve gotten note after note from people that say, after the tour, their love for NC State has increased — that now they have a very different passion for this place. That’s what it’s about for me.”

Along with the notes, Stafford has collected enough photos of tour groups to fill his cell phone, although he hasn’t counted individual participants.

History and Pride in Place Intertwine

One part of this story that’s not surprising is Stafford’s NC State pride in place. After all, his name is actually on the place — he’s the namesake of Stafford Commons adjacent to Talley Student Union. (The Thomas H. Stafford Jr. Spirit Bell, awarded each year to the overall winner of NC State’s Alumni Association’s Homecoming Spirit Competition, fittingly is named for him, too.)

But although Stafford’s NC State career spanned 41 years and he was a vice chancellor for 30 of them, he didn’t plan to become a guru of the Belltower.

“I spent a lot of time in Holladay Hall. Hundreds of times, I’d walk by that Belltower, every morning and evening, but I never really thought about it. Never even thought about going inside,” he said.

One day, though, a student campus leader stopped by Stafford’s office wondering about going into the Belltower. Stafford soon embarked on the first tour — which proved an unqualified hit for students involved. For a couple of years, he conducted two or three annual tours. But word began to spread.

As requests ramped up, so did Stafford’s research into interesting nuggets and stories behind photos, names, symbols and details related to the Belltower and the surrounding campus.

Stafford talks to a Belltower tour group.
Word has spread about Stafford’s tours, and they have grown in popularity. Photo by Marc Hall.

The retired administrator known for his “students first” mantra typically starts a tour on the front porch of what’s now Holladay Hall. He shows the lone existing photo of the institution’s first students (some just 14 years old), taken at that same spot in October 1889. He talks about R.S. Pullen donating 62 acres of land and the university’s land-grant tradition, and notes the view of the Belltower framed in the portico’s archway.

He explains that Alexander Quarles Holladay, the college’s first president, looked out the same office window that Chancellor Randy Woodson does today — back when Holladay was Main Hall. In those days, students lived on the top two floors, the main entrance level housed offices, classrooms and the library, and the infirmary, cafeteria, kitchen, gym and laboratories could be found on the garden level. That was it.

Stafford speaks of his pride in the way the university has grown and continued to diversify.

“This is where NC State began,” Stafford will say. “For me, these front steps of Holladay Hall represent a sacred place. If you really concentrate here, you can still feel those first students’ presence and their Wolfpack spirit. They never would have dreamed we’d have over 700 buildings and 35,000 students eventually.”

Soon, the Belltower Will Ring True

Many tour members remain surprised that a speaker system, rather than real bells, is the source of the Belltower’s hourly Westminster chimes. Few are aware of the mysterious carillon control room, also known as 14A on the Holladay Hall garden level, that connects to that system via underground wiring. In that room, two yellowing composition books atop a double keyboard contain handwritten lists of songs played by students every day at 5 p.m. from 1970 through March 7, 1989. Each mini-concert featured five to eight popular, patriotic or religious tunes, always ending with the alma mater. “When the new carillon is here [in the tower], I hope we can get some students to play again,” Stafford said.

Depending on their ages, tour members may be surprised by the control room’s cassette player and tapes — bearing names of recorded songs ranging from “America the Beautiful” and “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” to “Send in the Clowns” and “Wind Beneath My Wings” that once were played on a keyboard then sent out from the tower speakers.

A tour group might possess scant awareness of the federal Works Progress Administration. In the late 1930s, the WPA finished the stonework for the Belltower, which was dedicated in November 1949 after a start-and-stop process reflected in its varying shades and patterns of granite.

Stafford draws “oohs” and “aahs” when he talks about the upcoming completion of the Belltower with actual bells and stairs leading up to a new carillon room. That Think and Do the Extraordinary Campaign project also will include reversing decades of serious water damage and increasing accessibility. Laughter ensues when he tells tales like the one about the 2009 Belltower lightning strike and the man without clothes. (We won’t spoil it further.)

But perhaps most important of all, his words recall the 34 men honored in the Belltower’s Shrine Room who died as a result of World War I.

“We’re now in the very most sacred place on NC State’s campus. Always remember that this is a military memorial,” Stafford, a U.S. Army veteran, said in the marble-clad, close confines of the Shrine Room on a recent tour.

Stafford himself is sometimes surprised by people’s limited knowledge about NC State’s most iconic and timeless structure. He’s gratified to open their eyes to the history and to bring both traditions and important changes to life.

“The Belltower’s just an amazing story,” he said.

A Growing Tradition

In recent years, Stafford has given tours of other NC State sites such as Reynolds Coliseum. Since 2005, he has helped lead the Alumni Association’s semiannual ring ceremony, during which NC State seniors place their class rings in the Shrine Room overnight — symbolically connecting them to prior generations. This spring, Air Force ROTC members placed their gold bars to spend a night before their commissioning ceremony, too. Alumni have participated. A few engagement rings have even been blessed by the tower prior to marriage proposals.

Stafford’s own NC State ring, given to him upon his retirement, has passed about 15 nights in the Shrine Room. (He is an alumnus, having earned a master’s degree at the university between a bachelor’s from Davidson College and a Ph.D. from Florida State.)

In this spring 2021 video, Tom Stafford shares a behind-the-scenes look at the Belltower’s completion and renovation project, along with a few tales from his famous tour.

And so, as the pine pollen coating the ground gives way to confetti and the scent of freshly mown grass fills the air, Stafford spends springtime hours at the Belltower. He makes his way between happy students celebrating accomplishments — often by attempting to toss their caps or to open bottles of champagne in the structure’s shadow. Whether they’ve got parents, professional photographers or dogs in tow, and whether they carry selfie sticks, rugby balls or flags, the students’ faces light up when Stafford offers the key.

He describes recipients reacting like “little kids on Christmas or their birthdays,” but he can’t hide his own delight, either. He has done this so many times, he even suggests which photo poses seem most popular on social media.

The magnetic pull and energy of the place is strong enough for a few soon-to-be alums to schedule their own appointment with Stafford to walk inside the Belltower. That was the case for Kristin Ewan, a May 2019 graduate in aerospace engineering and a Goodnight Scholar.

“I just think it’s so nostalgic,” said Ewan, who brought along friend Daisy Chang, a 2018 alumna, to take her photo in the tower doorway. “When I first went on the Belltower tour, it really made NC State feel like a community and a family. I think my favorite thing is the anecdotes that Dr. Stafford tells, like the story of the lightning strike or the place where you would step down out of a horse-drawn carriage at Holladay Hall. It gives you a new perspective about NC State and how it’s grown and changed. It’s cool to be part of that.”

That small, plain key? Definitely part of something special.

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