UNC honors its oldest living master bell ringer

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Not many sounds can be heard from any spot on campus — but the chiming of the Bell Tower is one of the few.

Charles E. Stevens, 87, pulled the handles at the top of the tower when he was a student during World War II, and came back for a visit last weekend.

Stevens is the oldest living master bell ringer for the Bell Tower, having held the position from 1943 to 1945.

He lives in Greenville, but his daughter, Mary Charles Jenkins, brought him to campus this weekend for an alumni event with Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia fraternity — the music fraternity of which Stevens was a brother.

When Stevens was bell ringer — while John Motley Morehead III was still a part of the University community — the chimes were controlled manually.

“You’d pull the handles, and you’d actually ring the bells mechanically,” Stevens said.

Stevens and Patrick VanderJeugdt, the current bell ringer and a brother of Phi Mu Alpha, went into the Bell Tower Saturday morning.

The handles Stevens once used no longer control the bells. VanderJeugdt said the Bell Tower is all automated now — he just has to push a few buttons.

Although the job has changed logistically, VanderJeugdt said he still enjoys the aspects of being bell ringer that Stevens loved most.

“I will sometimes go up there — just if I feel like it — to go up and play,” VanderJeugdt said.

Stevens was a high school music teacher for 11 years and then taught music at East Carolina University for the following 30.

At ECU, John Heath, alumni relations officer of UNC’s chapter of Phi Mu Alpha, was one of Stevens’ students.

At Friday’s alumni dinner, Stevens received a pin for 50 years of brotherhood, an honor recently enacted by the national level of the fraternity, Heath said.

Heath said he was pleased with the event, and that the General Alumni Association’s assistance in contacting members of Phi Mu Alpha helped make it a success.

“For Dr. Stevens, it was a coming full circle thing,” Heath said.

“In the years that I’ve known him, he’s always talked about the Bell Tower. For him to come back at this age and take the elevator up the Bell Tower was really meaningful to me.”

While he was an undergraduate at UNC, Stevens became big brother to Andy Griffith, actor and UNC alumnus who died last year, in Phi Mu Alpha.

Stevens said he was with Griffith at an audition for “The Lost Colony,” when Griffith saw his wife for the first time.

“When she was up there on the stage, Andy pointed up there and said, ‘Who’s that girl up there?’” Stevens said.

“And it was Barbara, his first wife. He found out who she was and eventually married her.”

Stevens said Griffith was a double major in music and drama.

“He taught at Goldsboro High School at the same time I taught at Washington High School — before he hit the big time,” Stevens said.

Stevens toured Japan, accompanying singers with piano, and he eventually taught his own daughters about music too.

He still plays the piano every day.

Contact the desk editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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