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Podcast: Inside the Memorial Belltower With Dr. Tom Stafford

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On the first full episode of the NC State Philanthropy Podcast, we’re going inside the Memorial Belltower at Henry Square with vice chancellor of student affairs emeritus Dr. Tom Stafford. The university’s unofficial Belltower historian gives listeners a short lesson on this hallowed landmark, complete with information about how private support helped complete the project a century after it began. Stafford also shares some of the most memorable moments from his years of giving personal tours of the Belltower.

This episode was particularly special because it was recorded in the newly installed carillon room, just below the 55 real bells that finally call the Memorial Belltower home. Listeners will hear those bells ringing as a bonus during the episode, along with a solo performance by Stafford’s commemorative bell.

Listen to “Inside the Memorial Belltower With Dr. Tom Stafford“ here via Spotify, or visit the Apple podcast store, the Google podcast store, Stitcher or Podbean.

Click here to schedule a personal tour of the Belltower with Dr. Stafford and here to virtually tour it right now from the comfort of your home or office — including special looks at the belfry and carillon room, which are not open to the public. There’s far more to the Belltower’s history than we could ever cover in just one episode, so please visit our special ”Legend in Stone“ webpage for additional content.

To listen to this and other episodes of the NC State Philanthropy Podcast, visit the Apple and Google podcast stores, Spotify and Stitcher. Be sure to also subscribe in order to receive new episodes as soon as they’re released. You can visit our podcast webpage at Podbean, too, for direct downloads. However you listen, please leave a comment and rating to let us know how we’re doing!

Theme song:

Please listen carefully.

Taylor Pardue:

Welcome to the NC State Philanthropy Podcast, telling the world how we think and do the extraordinary through the support of our friends, alumni and more. I’m your host, Taylor Pardue. On today’s episode, we’re taking a special look inside NC State’s Memorial Belltower with Dr. Tom Stafford, a member of the Pack whose legacy will forever be linked with this hallowed landmark.

Taylor Pardue:

Welcome to the NC State Philanthropy Podcast. We’re coming to you from the inside of the carillon room in the Memorial Belltower. You just heard the real bells that are now part of the Belltower after a century in the making. With me here today is the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Emeritus, Dr. Tom Stafford, really the historian here at NC State for all things Belltower. Thank you for joining us today.

Tom Stafford:

Well, thank you, Taylor. And good afternoon or good morning to all of you out there, whichever time it may be. It is a beautiful day on the NC State campus. The sun is out, there’s a light breeze, but Taylor and I are in a really cool spot right now. We’re sitting in the carillon room right below the bells in the NC State alumni Memorial Belltower. And I’m very pleased to have this chance to share just a little bit of the history of this magnificent place and to talk about the impact that a very major financial gift to the university has had on our campus and on the Belltower.

Tom Stafford:

The Belltower was an idea that alumni came up with at the end of World War I. Back then, we were called State College, and they thought the college should do something to remember and honor their fellow alumni who went into military service and who died while they were in service during World War I. So, from my point of view, the most important thing to remember about our beautiful Memorial Belltower is that it is not just a bell tower. It is a Memorial Belltower, and it was built to honor our alumni who died while they were in military service during World War I. So, remember this is a memorial tower, and it is a military memorial tower.

Tom Stafford:

So, they started the construction in 1921 when they laid the cornerstone, and over the next number of years they had to stop construction on the tower twice, and in both cases, they had to do so because they ran out of money. It was over the Great Depression and over the second World War that they worked on this tower. So, finally, in 1937, with money from the WPA, which was a federal stimulus program designed to get us out of the Great Depression, money came to the college from that program, and the college was able to finish construction on the tower in 1937. But it took 10 more years after that to raise enough money to install the clocks, the lights around the base, and the very first carillon. They purchased a carillon and installed it in small room in Holladay Hall because they did not have money at the end of the project to purchase bells.

Tom Stafford:

So, instead of bells in the top of the tower, there were speakers. And those speakers projected music and chimes over the next great number of years. And during that time, I think most people thought that there were bells in the top. I mean, it sounded like bells, and people thought that’s what they were.

Tom Stafford:

So, around 2009, plus or minus a year or so, Matt Robins, a student at NC State, and some of his fellow student colleagues initiated a grassroots campaign to raise money to purchase bells to go into the tower. And they were successful in raising enough money to purchase five bells. And then, after that, the campaign really slowed down and pretty much stopped until the summer of 2017. In that summer, Bill and Frances Henry brought their son William to campus for freshman orientation. And Bill is an NC State alum.

Tom Stafford:

And after the first day of orientation, they were staying at the Aloft hotel right across the street. And after the first day of orientation, they happened to meet Alan Taylor from our advancement office, and a discussion about the Memorial Belltower and the fact that we didn’t have bells, but we were trying to raise money to purchase them. The conversation continued. And before you knew it, Bill and Frances Henry told our chancellor that they would give the unit the money to purchase bells for the top of the tower. And we needed 55 bells to build a room and build a carillon to go into that room that would be right below the bells, and that’s where Taylor and I are right now, to build a staircase that would go from the Shrine Room all the way up to the carillon room, to heat and air condition the tower, and to completely renovate and restore the shrine room. And then, finally, to build an incline on the outside that would allow people in a wheelchair to be able to come up to the door to the shrine room. And before all this was done, people in wheelchairs had no way to get into the Shrine Room.

Tom Stafford:

They said they would give us the money to do all of that if the chancellor would promise that all of the work on the Belltower would be completed in time for the bells, the new bells, to chime in honor of their son’s graduation four years later. And as you might guess, the chancellor quickly accepted that offer. And four years later, May last year, 2021, we had a wonderful dedication ceremony. We recognized and thank the Henry family for their magnificent gift that transformed the Belltower. And someone came up and sat on the same bench that I’m sitting on right now and played at about a 45-minute concert on our bells, on our new carillon, in honor of William Henry’s graduation.

Tom Stafford:

So, the university has named the grounds outside of the tower and all around the tower Henry Square to honor that family that gave that incredible gift that transformed this most iconic, most beautiful and most sacred place on our campus. It’s quite a story.

Taylor Pardue:

The timing was perfect, too. At the century of construction, so 1921 to 2021.

Tom Stafford:

Exactly right. People can’t believe that the construction on the Memorial Belltower began 100 years ago. And last November, on November the 11th, Veterans Day, we had a special ceremony to commemorate that historical event. So, 100 years ago, they started, and here we are today, a hundred years later, with a beautiful tower.

Tom Stafford:

I forgot to mention that the outside was also cleaned and restored.

Taylor Pardue:

That’s true.

Tom Stafford:

And so, right now, the Belltower is absolutely new, beautiful, both on the outside and on the inside in the Shrine Room. And if you’ve not seen the Shrine Room and would like to go on one of my tours, at the end of which I take the group inside to see the Shrine Room and to hear some of the stories about the Belltower, contact me and we’ll find a time and I’ll be glad to do it.

Tom Stafford:

Well, Bill and Frances Henry represent the very best of philanthropy of their alma mater. Bill was a student here, and he went out and did very well, and he and his wife thought that they should do something to return the favor to NC State in recognition of what he did on this campus and the success that he had as a result of that. And that’s what giving back is all about. That’s what it means. And we are very proud of that family. And now, I mean, when I take people inside of the Shrine Room, I could not be more proud. It is a beautiful, beautiful room, and it is the most sacred place on our campus.

Tom Stafford:

I don’t know if we’ve got time or not, but if you get on the tour, I will explain some of the traditions of the Belltower, one of which is for students who have purchased an NC State ring. They are invited to come to the Belltower one particular afternoon, and we unlock the door and let them bring their own ring in the box. They can’t open the box and look at it; that’s bad luck, but they can bring their ring in the box into the Shrine Room and place it right next to the plaque, the sacred plaque, which has the names of all of our alumni who died during the war. And their ring, along with all the other rings, will spend the night in the Belltower. And I can’t tell you right now exactly what happens that night, because it’s a top secret, but all I can say is that something very mysterious happens in the Shrine Room the night those rings spend the night there. And that has become a really, really cool tradition on our campus.

Taylor Pardue:

How long have you personally been leading these tours? And in addition, how did you come to be involved with the Belltower? You really are the defacto historian for the Belltower now at NC State. Well, just tell us a little bit about your journey. How you came to NC State, if you would like, and then as well how you became so involved with the Belltower.

Tom Stafford:

Yeah, I did my master’s degree at NC State back in the mid ’60s and got to know and work for Banks Talley, whose name is on our student union today. And after I finished my army obligation and finished my Ph.D. at Florida State, Banks Talley invited me to come back to NC State to work here. And that was in 1971. And I was really in the right place at the right time, and I was able to become the vice chancellor for Student Affairs in 1983. And doing tours of the Belltower was never in my job description. Nobody ever told me I was supposed to be taking people over to the Belltower and taking them inside.

Tom Stafford:

But one day, in 2008, that’s what, 12, 14 years ago? A student leader came into my office in Holladay Hall, and he wanted to know if I could, and if I would, take his group inside the Shrine Room. I’d never thought about it before, but I got the key and I took them in, and when I saw how excited they got, and how many pictures they were taking, holding the door open to prove that they had been inside the Shrine Room, I knew right then there was a good opportunity there. And the word spread, and over the last 14 years, I’ve had a lot of people ask me to give them and their family or their group or their friends or their colleagues the tour that I’ve organized. And it runs about an hour and a half.

Tom Stafford:

And I’ve given that tour now, right around 800 times. I could give you the exact number if I were to go back on my calendars, I keep a track of every tour. But it’s right around 800. And people keep asking me to develop a tour of Reynolds Coliseum, and I’m pretty busy doing tours of the Belltower, so I wasn’t able to do that. And they kept asking me, so I finally gave in and did some research. And I mean, what I found on Reynolds Coliseum was absolutely amazing. So, I put that into a PowerPoint presentation and my Reynolds Coliseum tour, I’ve done about 150 or so of that tour. Those have turned out to be pretty popular also.

Taylor Pardue:

What is it about the Belltower specifically? You’ve been retired about 10 years now, right?

Tom Stafford:

Yep.

Taylor Pardue:

What is it about the Belltower that keeps you so active still on campus coming to do these tours? And just tell a little bit about how you’ve seen the Belltower change.

Tom Stafford:

Well, this just happened. It was not anything that I set out to do. But once I started doing the tours, I began to understand that most of the people on the NC State campus don’t know the history of the Belltower, and they have no idea that this is a military memorial. And it symbolizes NC State’s long and very proud history and tradition with our military. We claim that we produce more ROTC graduates who have gone on to become generals in our military than any other university in the nation except for the military academies. And we should be very, very proud of that.

Taylor Pardue:

Absolutely. Yeah.

Tom Stafford:

And even the ones who did not become generals, they served and served with a great distinction. So, we have a very proud history on this campus of our connection to the military. And I’m an Army ROTC lieutenant myself, and I wanted to help spread that word and to try to do what I could to increase the knowledge that students and faculty and staff on this campus have about this beautiful tower. You know, people say, “The Belltower, the Belltower,” I wish they would say, “The Memorial Belltower.”

Taylor Pardue:

Absolutely.

Tom Stafford:

Because it is here to honor those men who died while they’re were in military service. So, that’s been what motivates me.

Taylor Pardue:

Speaking of that and what we’ve talked about the Shrine Room, talk a little bit about the plaque in particular, that’s been restored and everything through this campaign, too. Talk a little bit about the names on those.

Tom Stafford:

Thank you; that’s a really good question. They prepared the plaque back in 1940. Well, it was finished by 1947, and they decided to inscribe into the marble plaque the names of all the NC State graduates who died while they were in military service. And they put the names on the plaque and put the plaque up. And then after they had done all of that, they discovered that they had made a big mistake. And that mistake was that they had included the name of a man who was still alive. He had been wounded in combat in France, he had been put into a French hospital, and word came back to the college that he had been critically wounded. So, they assumed he would die. And so, they included his name.

Tom Stafford:

Well, he didn’t die; he recovered. He comes back, and he comes in and looks, and there’s his name among the dead. So, they had to figure out a way to solve that problem. And no, they didn’t take him down and shoot him. That’s not the right answer. They decided to change his name on the plaque, and I’m not going to tell you which name it is because, if you take the tour or come into the Shrine Room, I’m going to ask you to find the name that they changed. All I’ll say is that they changed his name from his real name into another name. And when they did that, they said there was no known person at that time with that new name.

Taylor Pardue:

Almost a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Tom Stafford:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. So, it was designated as a symbolic name that represents all the NC State alumni who went into the war.

Taylor Pardue:

Something else that came out of the Think and Do the Extraordinary Campaign and the Henrys’ gift. I believe we actually added one extra name into the Shrine Room, too, correct?

Tom Stafford:

Correct. That was a name of a man who had gone into the military in the fall of 1918; no, I’m sorry. 1919. And he caught the Spanish flu and the Army discharged him; he’d only been on active duty a few months. They discharged with the flu, he went home and he died about a week or so later. And the Alumni Association decided that it would be appropriate to add his name inside the Shrine Room. And so, it is there, just to the right of the sacred plaque. One other thing about the plaque: they did not have the money when everything was finished to put gold leaf on the letters of the names on the plaque. So, when we did the renovation, that was another feature that was added, and it really adds a special quality to the plaque.

Tom Stafford:

When I have a tour group, I like to take them inside the room, turn off all the lights and close the door. And it’s pitch black. And then I hit the button that lights up the lights on each side of the plaque. And every time when I do that, there is a very audible, “Ooh. Oh, wow,” in the room. I mean, it is a spectacular image when you’re in a dark room like that and all of a sudden, boom, that plaque just comes illuminated. So, that’s the way I like to introduce people to the Shrine Room.

Taylor Pardue:

Listeners may have heard this kind of creaking in the background that we had talked about a little bit before we started recording. Tell us a little bit about that.

Tom Stafford:

OK. That’s another really good question. I’ve been up in this room a number of times, but today is the first time that it’s been kind of quiet and just the two of us so that I’ve been able to notice that noise. And it sounds like the creaking on an old ship. And Taylor was the one who identified that noise that way. And it is right there where the clocks are located; we are right behind the four clocks. Yeah. And I don’t know whether it’s the movement of the hands on the clock, or the movement of the hands causes the wood panel that’s on the inside of this room to just creak a little bit.

Taylor Pardue:

Bow a little bit. Yeah. It sounds like it could be either one, but it’s definitely attached to the clocks.

Tom Stafford:

Yeah, it does. And when you first hear it, it’s a little eerie.

Taylor Pardue:

The individual 55 bells, now. Many of them are, through the Henry’s gift, dedicated to different people. They have different names. You actually have your own bell up there, too, right?

Tom Stafford:

Yes, I do. I’m very proud of this. Bill and Frances Henry and their family, they have their names on the largest bell after the largest bell, which is a gift from the class of 2010. So, the really big bell was given by the class of 2010, and then the next-largest bells, I think about four, all have Henry names on them. And then the bell that has my name on it was a bell that the Henry family wanted the university to do. And I was very honored when they told the chancellor they wanted that done. And so, there is a bell up there, with the Henry bells and others, that has my name on it. And if you promise you won’t tell anybody I did this, I’m looking at the peg right now that’s connected to my bell, and I hope you can hear it on the podcast.

Taylor Pardue:

Go for it.

Tom Stafford:

But I’m going to ring my bell. It’s very faint. It’s a little hard to hear it in this room. Hopefully you can hear it a little bit better on the outside.

Taylor Pardue:

The Henrys were gracious enough to give one, I want to give a shout out to my editor, Lisa Hall, in development communications. She actually has one of her own bells up there, too, so it’s been a very gracious gift from them. It’s really benefited a lot of people on campus, everyone on campus.

Tom Stafford:

Absolutely. There’s no question about that. And I met them soon after they brought their son up here and gave them my Belltower tour. And so, I’ve gotten to know them, and they’re just a wonderful family. I mean, we are very proud of them as NC State alums.

Taylor Pardue:

You’ve talked about going into the Shrine Room before and after the renovation. What’s it like now? When you first came in, this was basically a hollow tube all the way up to the belfry area. But now, with the staircase, the carillon room itself, the roof to the Shrine Room, what’s it like to be able to look up and now see this full Belltower that’s really come to fruition?

Tom Stafford:

Well, I don’t think I can think of any words that can adequately describe how wonderful this renovation is and how I feel about all of this and what it’s like to come in now compared to before. Now, before, the Shrine Room was nice and the plaque was beautiful. It did not have gold leaf, but it was a sacred place And a beautiful place. It did have a lot of water damage that had taken place over the years, and I was very concerned that that had happened and that it continued to happen. In fact, the water damage had begun to damage the letters on some of the names on the plaque. And I knew that the room could eventually be renovated, but when I saw that the water had begun to damage some of them, then I really got upset and finally was able to convince the university to come in and remove the original historical plaque and put it in a safe storage place. And they took a photograph of it and mounted that photograph on cardboard and put it up. And it looked exactly like the plaque, I mean the original plaque. I would bring people in and…

Taylor Pardue:

There’s the chiming on the half-hour, too.

Tom Stafford:

Now, that one chime indicates that it was the half-hour. So we had perfect timing, Taylor.

Taylor Pardue:

We did. We did.

Tom Stafford:

We’re up here at just the right time. But the Shrine Room as it appear now, I mean, it is gorgeous. And before, I would say it was very nice, and it was very sacred because it had all those names on the plaque, but it didn’t even come close to what it looks like today. And the staircase that lets people come up to this room that we’re in right now is marble and brass handrails, and it also is very beautiful.

Taylor Pardue:

Speaking of repairs and different things that have happened to the Belltower before the campaign, after the campaign, tell us a little bit about the lightning strike.

Tom Stafford:

Well, I’ll give you a teaser. OK.

Taylor Pardue:

OK.

Tom Stafford:

I finish every Belltower tour by to telling the story of the day that lightning hit the Belltower. And I’m not going to do the whole story right now.

Taylor Pardue:

No, save it for the tours [crosstalk 00:28:58].

Tom Stafford:

To tell the story, it takes me about close to 10 minutes. On a late spring day back in 2009, a very bad storm came across the campus, and a bolt of lighting hit the top of the Belltower. And I happened to be close by, and a student who knew me called me over and told me that the lightning had hit top of the Belltower and he had seen it. And it had knocked off a big piece of granite from the top corner of the Belltower. And I’m not going to tell you much more about this story except to say that what happened after that point, I would say, is an absolutely incredible story.

Tom Stafford:

And so today, what is that? 13 years later. Today, if you stand in the right spot over towards the front of Holladay Hall and you look up at the top right-hand corner of the Belltower, right below the solid granite cornerstone, you can spot a hole in the granite where that piece of granite used to be. And what happened to that piece of granite is a part I’ll save for the tour. It’s quite a story.

Taylor Pardue:

If you haven’t already, we really do encourage you to come out and take Dr. Stafford’s tour. Or, if you’ve taken it in the years past, and now haven’t seen the renovations and everything that the Henrys have made possible, please do come out. We’ll put that in the show notes and just make that a part of your NC State campus tour as soon as you can. Dr. Stafford, thank you so much for your time, and really, just from all of us, for everything that you do for the Memorial Belltower and for NC State. We really appreciate it. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and get to hear more about the Belltower.

Tom Stafford:

“The pleasure be all mine.” It’s a Bob Dylan line, but thank you very much for what you had to say.

Taylor Pardue:

To schedule a tour of the Memorial Belltower with Dr. Stafford, please visit go.ncsu.edu/towertour. For stories, photos, videos, and even a virtual walkthrough of the Belltower visit go.ncsu.edu/legend. If you’d like to hear even more stories of Wolfpack success, please subscribe to the NC State Philanthropy Podcast today in the Apple or Google podcast stores, on Spotify or through Stitcher. Be sure to leave us a comment and rating as well to let us know how we’re doing. Thanks for listening, and as always, go Pack.