Each year at this time a little bit of magic flows over the campus. The pace picks up, the parking lots are full again and the students return to campus. You might say that the campus comes back to life as our students come back, carrying with them an infectious energy that permeates Wabash. I love to watch the students returning to their dorms or their houses, meeting their friends or a favorite professor on the mall. It is an annual occurrence, but never quite the same. It is as fresh as the students who create it. It is evergreen and ever changing.
One of the real highlights each fall is Freshman Saturday when the new class arrives. This is the day when a lifetime of anticipation meets reality, when anxious parents are still struggling with the idea that their son is now on his way to adulthood. A time when, maybe for the first time, the sons will need to figure it out for themselves – whatever “it” is. A time when the boy they have been meets the man they will become. It is a joyous time, a sad time, an exciting time and for sure, a day most parents and students will remember forever. It is a day of change. Such a day should be marked in some meaningful way, it should be noted forever in the record books, and it should be special. I am happy to say that at Wabash it is ALL of those things.
The highlight of Freshman Saturday is, without question, the Ringing In which happens in the Chapel. All of the students sit together in the balcony of the Chapel while the parents and other family members are on the main floor. The ceremony starts as everyone is welcomed by the Dean of Students. The Dean of Admissions gives a short welcome and a brief summary of the incoming class. Next up is the President of the National Association of Wabash Men who welcomes the class to the brotherhood of Wabash men. The ceremony ends with remarks from the President. At the end of his speech the President picks up a very special bell and rings it with vigor. And it is now official, these fellows are “In.” For the young men of the incoming class this marks the start of their lives as Wabash men. After Freshman Saturday, whatever else they may do, they are now Sons of Wabash.
As I sat in the Chapel and watched my son become a Wabash man, I was thinking a thousand different things, but also about the bell itself. Caleb Mills’ Bell is not fancy, it is not particularly oversized. The truth is that this bell which plays such a large role in the life of the College is really a humble little bell.
Let me share with you what is known about this bell and why it is so special. This bell was first used at Wabash by Caleb Mills, a young missionary and teacher, on December 3, 1833 to call the first class of 12 young men to order. He rang it to mark the start of the first class at Wabash 181 years ago. For a really good description of this bell and its history, here is a snippet from a speech by President Joseph Tuttle. Dr. Tuttle delivered this address in 1882 at the time of the College’s semi-centennial:
I have by me not the first clock that ever ticked in Wabash College, but the bell that rung the boys together the morning of December 3, 1833. Here it is. The good right hand that touched it is mouldering in the grave. The tongue that said that morning, ‘Let us pray,’ is silent in death. But this bell has as sharp and clear a tone as it had that morning so long ago when for the first time it did duty for the College. Its metal is genuine, and so is its tongue. And yet how well balanced it has been. Here is a groove around the mouth of the bell made by the numberless taps of its tongue of iron. It was not a one-sided bell – nor a moody bell– nor a bell given to making excuses – nor a bell with a voice that failed sometimes.
Just hear its voice. The men that used it are gone, and even the boys for whom it rung out the summons to get up, and to be at duty, have most of them gone to the long home – and those that remain have cracks in their voice which tell of age. But this bell is as sound as when it was cast and its tones as clear as when it tapped the sounds of duty near half a century ago. When the College procured a larger bell, this one went on duty at the School for Young Ladies in the old Canby Mansion. And there too it was as honest as among the boys…this bell had a hard and true heart and an honest voice for all alike. This bell has been in Professor Hovey’s family and his son has had some letters engraved on it and presented it to the College. I will read … the inscription.”
1833 to 1835
Presented by H. C. Hovey
With those words Tuttle very eloquently gives us a condensed history of the bell to 1882. For the next 90 years we must leave much to conjecture. It is quite reasonable to suppose that this bell was on display for many years in the History Room of Yandes Library. We do know that many of our earliest artifacts from this time period were part of the exhibit. No longer on display, I expect that it was overlooked when the Library moved to the new Lilly building in the 1950’s. Nearly two decades later the bell was found in a closet in Yandes Hall. The year was 1971 and Professor Peteris Silins found it wrapped in old newspapers. Happily it was immediately clear what this little bell meant to the College thanks to Horace Hovey’s inscription. Horace’s father was Edmund O. Hovey a founder and early faculty member at Wabash. Both father and son had what one might call a predisposition for preservation of the historical record. Many of the items that we have from our pioneer days come from the Hoveys.
Following the rediscovery of the bell, President Thad Seymour immediately put the bell to work to “call” the freshmen to classes and again in the spring to dismiss the seniors at commencement. I am told that the class of 1975 is first in the modern era to be “rung in” and here is a picture of former President Thad Seymour carrying the bell.
The Ringing In at Wabash is really one of those moments that all students and their parents will remember all of their lives. It is a clearly defined moment in time, one of those rare times where there is a clear “before and after” quality. It is an occasion as powerful as it is memorable and the little bell with its clear, strong tone somehow just makes it perfect. It was a moment I will never forget.