Bell Tower Master Seeks Former Ringers

For senior David Steele, receiving the “key to the city” of Chapel Hill means having access to 14 unique tones that in combination create the town’s soundtrack.

Bell Tower amid treesAs master bell ringer of the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, Steele is responsible for selecting songs from the Bell Tower’s computer program — composed of 14 bells — on football game days. The tradition has been handed down through the years to the University’s marching band members.

In fact, he’s trying to identify every one of them. The Bell Tower was built in 1931, and the ringers from the earliest years are listed on plaques in the tower. But there are no records of the University’s bell ringers after 1953, and Steele has taken it upon himself to work with the General Alumni Association to track them down.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Steele, who plays alto saxophone. “Sure, people hear the Bell Tower walking across campus every day and think nothing of it. But I think, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ ”

Steele, a native of Kannapolis who is majoring in public policy, heard about the honorary position during his freshman year and said the tuba player who held the title at the time passed along a wealth of ear-perking information about the Bell Tower’s legacy.

“There’s so much interesting stuff around here that you can learn and hear if you just talk to people,” Steele said.

Last year, he approached band Director Jeff Fuchs about the role with the understanding that Fuchs’ decision would be based on trust, familiarity and responsibility rather than a formal application.

Steele always has had a keen interest in the University’s history, remembering a friend who would go and look at all of the Old Well’s blueprints in the UNC archives.

Now, when Steele pulls the Bell Tower key out of his pocket and climbs a series of stairs and ladders, he takes a second look at the names written in graffiti on the walls when seniors make their ascent before graduating.

“I’ve found the names of two of my old frat members — I’m in the music frat Phi Mu Alpha — and the names of two of my friends who got married this past summer,” he said.

When the tower’s past doesn’t grab his full attention, Steele is responsible for turning off the clock on football Saturdays so that it doesn’t ring during the game. He also moves back and forth between the inside of the tower and the balcony as the band and cheerleaders approach so he knows when to turn off the song that’s playing.

“To get songs into the computer, you have to play them live,” Steele said. Last December, he played Carol of the Bells and entered it into the tower’s computer system, and this football season he already has played Sweet Caroline.

Steele said he is in the process of finding other songs that work with the tower’s 14 bells. “I get a lot of requests for rap songs, but that just doesn’t work,” he said.

Embracing his role as keeper of the legacy is what keeps Steele in the position, he said.

“My goal is to have the list completed by the end of the year,” he said. “I’ve already made some progress.”

Are you a former master ringer? Know someone who is? You can help David Steele with his project by contacting him at (980) 622-1317, or

This fall, for the first time, the GAA is hosting a Bell Tower Climb during Tar Heel Town before each home football game. In recent years, the tower has been open only two days a year – at the end of the spring semester as part of the Senior Week and for Homecoming/RAMpage weekend. This year, a total of more than 980 people climbed the tower before the games against James Madison and Virginia. The GAA will continue to host the climbs on Oct. 6 and 13 and Nov. 3 and 24; Tar Heel Town opens two and a half hours before kickoff.

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