By Pam Hersh
The 17th century English poet, scholar and cleric John Donne said in a sermon that because we are all part of mankind, any person’s death is a loss to all of us: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
That spiritual sentiment was at the heart of the Princeton community bell tolling at noon on Saturday, May 29 that marked the conclusion to The Spirit of Princeton’s Memorial Day commemoration.
The three-minute bell ringing by the churches and Princeton University was intended as a way to have residents and visitors pause for a moment and contemplate the enormous sacrifices made by the nation’s service men and women, who may be unknown to us, but whose selfless actions ought to be etched into our consciousness. And this year, the bell tolling also was intended to have us remember the health care, emergency services and essential workers, who, during this pandemic, made huge personal sacrifices for the benefit of others.
U.S. Army Capt. Alex Gephart, the speaker at the Spirit of Princeton Memorial Day ceremony, eloquently expanded on the essence of John Donne’s words.
“Each year, the ferociousness of this day is hard to overcome,” said the Princeton resident and West Point graduate, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It is a heavy day, a day of reflecting on the true cost of the sacrifice that these men and women willingly made. A day of reflecting on the cost as shouldered by their families and friends, the ones who carry on, the ones who have to live in tragedy’s aftermath. …
“So how do we honestly receive this gift from these men and women that we never knew?”
A graduate student at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, Capt. Gephart had a simple but moving suggestion as to how we can acknowledge the men and women who died in the line of duty. People must be “willing to help out our neighbors and empower them to improve their small corner of the world. We must take every opportunity to tell those around us that we love them and how thankful we are for the small acts of mercy and grace in our lives.”
The legacy of the service men and women – for whom the bells toll – will endure, if “we do good for our fellow Americans, so that we may confront the many challenges of the world. We are all in this together, and may our collective actions properly honor the service members who have given their lives for our brighter future,” Capt. Gephart concluded.
Although bells tolling throughout history have been associated with military milestones, such as victory or imminent attack, bells ringing can communicate several messages to bring the community together in common awareness.
Princeton University’s Nassau Hall bell rings for only a few university events every year: the P-rade (the Reunions Parade), Baccalaureate, Class Day and Commencement, as a way of coalescing the university community for momentous occasions.
Technicians reinstall the bell’s clapper for these occasions and remain in the bell tower while it is in use. The reinstallation of the clapper and its operational security are procedures made necessary by a Princeton University undergraduate student tradition of stealing the clapper.
For more than 100 years, stealing the Nassau Hall bell clapper was a popular student prank — and even a rite of passage. The first clapper-stealing student hailed from the Class of 1865. He climbed the outside of the bell tower in March 1864 and made off with the clapper, after which a janitor had to strike the bell with a hammer. In subsequent years, clapper theft became such a freshman tradition that the university kept a barrel of clappers on hand for quick replacement.
I was actually working in Nassau Hall in the 1990s, when clapper-stealing incidents led to the permanent removal of the clapper. In 1991, one student sprained an ankle while scaling Nassau Hall; and another dropped the clapper from the roof, narrowly missing students on the ground. At that point, the administration had the bell clapper removed. The next year, officers of the freshman Class of 1995 assured the administration that the clapper could safely be restored. The university complied, but the clapper’s allure was too strong. In April 1992, a member of the Class of 1995 was injured, when he fell 40 feet from the third story of Nassau Hall in pursuit of the clapper, which was then permanently removed.
Ernie Andreoli, the music director at St. Paul’s Church on Nassau Street, said that St. Paul’s bell chiming conveys several different messages, including a call to worship prior to all masses; the celebration of weddings with a joyful peal of all five bells creating a raucous, happy sound; and the conclusion of funerals with a slow, somber tolling.
Princeton’s renowned historian Shirley Satterfield noted that the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church carillon plays a hymn at noon and 6 p.m. daily, but recently has been silenced, because it is in need of repair.
In the more than 40 years I have been living and working in Princeton, I have encountered only one ban-the-bells/end-noise-pollution activist. Mr. Andreoli, however, said he believes that most residents consider the bells an inspirational asset, if the tolling is done with respect and not overdone.
“It generates a togetherness that you do not get from other modes of communications,” he said. He even pointed out that one of the local newspapers a few years ago had a real estate listing for a home on Moore Street, right down the street from St. Paul’s. The listing noted specifically the appeal of the pealing of the bells from the neighboring St. Paul’s church.
Since the bell ringing for Memorial Day is a brand new element in the Spirit of Princeton Memorial Day celebration, it is hard to say how the ringing was perceived. All I know is that now whenever I hear bells ringing on Memorial Day, I will know for whom the bell tolls and reflect on how my actions have honored the their legacy.
The Memorial Day commemoration ceremony is sponsored and implemented by the Spirit of Princeton, a charitable non-profit group of local residents dedicated to bringing the community together through a variety of civic events, including the Memorial Day parade and ceremony, Flag Day ceremony (which will be held in person at the Princeton Municipal Building on June 14 at 11:30 a.m.), and the Veterans Day Ceremony. www.spiritofprinceton.org