Sue Wood: Chimemaster

Sue Wood shares her recollections of playing chimes in Altgeld Tower

Sue Wood began playing the chimes while attending Illinois as a student. She rose from apprentice to associate chimesmaster and became chimesmaster in 1995 after Albert Marien retired. Photo by Ray Cunningham
Sue Wood shares her recollections of playing chimes in Altgeld Tower

When Sue Wood, PhD ’76 ACES, first positioned herself behind the pump handle keyboard contained within the console room of Altgeld Hall’s bell tower in 1971, she did so with no particular song in mind. Wood fiddled with a few classical tunes before finding sheet music for The Ash Grove, a traditional Welsh folk tune. “It’s really a beautiful little tune … and it was always one of my favorites to play…” muses Wood, who retired as Altgeld Hall’s chimesmaster in the fall of 2016.

The chimes have been part of the campus soundscape for almost a century. Dedicated in 1920, the 15 carillon bells were a gift from the classes of 1914-21 and members of the U.S. School of Military Aeronautics. (The usual complement is 18 bells, but only 15 are required to play Illinois Loyalty.)

Members of the campus community have grown accustomed to the chimes sounding every quarter hour, with brief “concerts” performed at lunchtime, and other times as well—all played by Wood and other volunteers. The songs most frequently performed include Ode to Joy, the Illini fight song, Alma Mater, Hail to the Orange and seasonal standards, although choices are generally left to the person at the keyboard. That accounts for the memorable December morning when the upbeat and bell-rich theme song from the TV show Futurama accompanied students on their way to class. “I think the student who played that probably found the notations online,” Wood dryly notes.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer/UI Public Affairs

Wood, who had previously played the chimes at the University Lutheran Church, began playing while attending graduate school at Illinois, joining then-chimesmaster Albert Marien. She moved quickly from apprentice to associate chimesmaster and, in 1995, became chimesmaster after Marien retired. As chimesmaster, Wood played four hours per week.

Wood brims with fond recollections of her times with the chimes, but perhaps her favorite moment occurred in the mid-2000s. The Marching Illini had arranged to perform a concert on the steps of Foellinger Auditorium. In addition to its standard fare, the band planned to play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The iconic piece commemorates Russia’s victory over Napoleon, and is celebrated for its use of cannon fire and ringing chimes. The band contacted Wood and asked that she join in the performance as an accompaniment to the marching band’s own chimes player. The execution was a bit of a logistical headache. “They had me hooked up to someone by telephone,” says Wood, “and I just waited by the pumps until … he yelled, ‘Okay, play now!’” The impact, however, was worth it. During the rousing finale, the sound of clanging chimes reverberated simultaneously from two sides of the Quad. “Thank goodness that it was time to stop,” Wood says, laughing. “My arms were falling off at that point!”

The chimes are temporarily silent, as they are being reconditioned as part of the ongoing restoration of Altgeld Hall. The original keyboard and the playing cabin are being renovated as well. According to Wood, the bells may be operational by this Fall; as of press time, a new chimesmaster has not been named.

The 15 carillon bells are housed in Altgeld Tower. Installed in 1920, the bells collectively weigh 15,000 pounds. (Photo courtesy of UI Alumni Association)