After around two years of construction, the Memorial Belltower, located at the newly dedicated Henry Square, has reopened. On May 14, the NC State Alumni Association held an event in which Henry Square was officially dedicated, and students, faculty and staff celebrated the reopening of the Belltower nearly a century after its cornerstone was placed.
An iconic structure for current students and alumni alike, the Belltower now boasts a 55-bell carillon alongside other embellishments and improvements, including a thorough cleaning of the exterior and, finally, interior stairs.
“I would describe it as the biggest philanthropy story,” said Lisa Coston Hall, senior development writer and editor in the Office of Development Communications and Stewardship. “From the beginning, it was an effort to raise money to build a war memorial, and then they ran into a lot of financial challenges.”
Although Memorial Belltower renovations had been in the works for years, it was the contribution from the Henry family that made the once seemingly impossible feat of completing the Belltower within the university’s reach.
Benny Suggs, the executive director and associate vice chancellor for Alumni Relations, emphasized the importance of the Henrys’ gift in finally getting the restoration project off the ground.
“Over time, a committee and a lot of significant alumni have worked hard, contributed, talked about it, campaigned about it, made appeals for support and all kinds of ways to make it happen,” Suggs said. “But, as you know, there were a lot of fits and starts — the Depression certainly didn’t help at all. While alumni contributed quite a bit, it really took the Henry family a few years ago making a very, very significant commitment to really see it finally complete.”
The reopening ceremony, which took place the same day as the first of two commencement ceremonies for the class of 2021, showcased several student speakers as well as a carillon concert.
“I could think in different times, it could have been a really huge event, with thousands of people,” Hall said. “And I hope in the fall or in the future, we get to do something bigger, perhaps.”
Loosening COVID-19 restrictions across North Carolina and the completion of the Memorial Belltower will allow the Alumni Association and others to hold several events at the Belltower in the months and years to come. From the ring tradition to more grandiose events featuring community leaders and prestigious alumni, the future looks bright.
“We use [the Belltower] as a backdrop or venue for lots and lots of things,” Suggs said. “Of course, the Alumni Association conducted a 10-year anniversary of 9/11 in 2011, and we took the lead on that… and then in 2018, we did a similar event with the hundred-year commemoration of World War I.”
At one point during the reopening ceremony, three students read the names of 34 alumni who died while serving in World War I, all of which are inscribed on the new Shrine Room plaque inside the Belltower. After a name was read, a single bell chimed to honor their sacrifice.
“We thought it was important to make sure that the men who were honored on the plaque got acknowledged,” Hall said. “You know, they built it for them and then they never got bells, so we wanted to make sure that we tolled the bells for them.”
According to Suggs, a Navy veteran himself, the symbol of the Memorial Belltower as a tribute to NC State’s military members is especially important.
“It’s part of the fabric of this land-grant institution, that military component and it’s represented so well by the Alumni Memorial Belltower,” Suggs said. “For me, that is huge.”
An inaugural performance by carillonneur Tom Gurin capped the ceremony. Gurin played old pieces and new, ranging from “Polovtsian Dances” to the 20th-century classic “Your Song” by Elton John. Learning to play the carillon is no small feat, however — it’s a fairly complicated instrument.
Luckily, some pieces such as the fight song will soon be programmed to play through a remote element in Holladay Hall in the meantime.
“I think at some point we will have student players again,” Hall said. “I don’t know how quickly that can happen — it’s a pretty complex instrument. The old one was much more like an organ, but this one… it’s a little bit different. People who can play the organ and piano can learn to play it, but there’ll be some training.”
The Memorial Belltower’s impact is not lost on students and alumni, and the recent reopening and dedication ceremony proves just that. Suggs recalled his first day of work at NC State, several decades removed from being a student.
“Careers are great, and I was very fortunate to have a couple that I’m very proud of that would not have occurred if I had not come to NC State and the education I got and especially all the support I got from people,” Suggs said. “But you can remember this: A calling trumps a career. And so, when I look at the Belltower, it fuels my fire. It represents so many things that are important to me.”