Dan Strojny

At St. Thomas, the Bells Toll for Dan Strojny

By whom the bells toll

The bells on the campus of the University of St. Thomas may toll for thee, as John Donne has written, but they toll because one man has taken it upon himself to keep them ringing.

Actually, they aren’t bells; they just sound like bells. The sound emanates from a computerized sound system with speakers and an amplifier that are housed in the Rocca-Rutman Tower of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library. Dan Strojny, a senior central systems administrator for Information Resources and Technologies who has worked at St. Thomas since 1998, has voluntarily maintained the system since 2003, when the bells stopped ringing and the music died.

“I knew we had the bell tower and I knew we had a carillon at some point because I had heard it, and then it didn’t run for a while – I don’t know if it was for a year or so,” Strojny said in a recent interview. “It’s one of those things when you think about it – maybe one of these days it’ll come back. It’ll just show up again. But it never did. I did some digging around to find out who was responsible for it and it turned out that I don’t think any one person was responsible for it.”

Bell Computer

The control panel for the Verdin computer system that controls the bells is tucked away in O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library. (Photo by Mike Ekern '02)

“Some said the Physical Plant was responsible, and some said the Music Department. It turned out that there wasn’t a single person who claimed operational responsibility for maintenance," he added.

It was eventually discovered that Dr. Merritt Nequette and Dr. Chris Kachian were involved with some programming of the carillon in the past, but since Nequette had retired and Kachian’s office was on the south campus, no one was close by to hear (or not hear) what the carillon was doing on a daily basis.

"So I offered up my services. I said I’d like to take a look at it and see what’s going on,” Strojny remarked.

He did, and he discovered that although others had been checking on the system in the control room in the library, and setting it to ring and hearing the bells toll on a small speaker in the room, they never listened to see if the speakers on the outside were actually functioning. They weren’t. Someone, Strojny discovered, had gone into the bell tower and cut the wires to the speakers.

That being the only problem, it was an easy fix. “We reconnected the wiring and made sure that the speakers were good to go and everything worked, fired the thing back up and that system ran relatively well until this last year,” Strojny recalled.

Last spring, the sound processor that generates the bell tones “fried itself,” Strojny said. A new one was purchased and installed in June. The bells rang again but with a slightly different, richer tone.

The old system featured "traditional" sounding bells. St. Thomas’ bells are now referred to as "American" bells. “An American bell … has a few more overtones. They’re a fuller sounding bell. So when you hear the carillon now, the bells should sound richer than they used to sound under the old system,” Strojny said.

The bells of St. Peter’s

The company that installed the new controller here, The Verdin Co., maker of bells and clocks since 1842, is the same company that installed the bells in Strojny’s hometown parish of St. Peter’s in Stevens Point, Wis., where he did a lot of volunteer work and first learned about bell towers, clocks and carillons – and blew a couple of fuses along the way – while he was in high school.

The St. Peter’s bell tower has gear-driven clock faces, and with the tower open to the elements, mechanical problems caused by years of ice storms and other weather began to take a toll on the mechanical workings of the bells and clocks.

St. Peter Catholic Church, Stevens Point, Wis.

Dan Strojny first learned about the workings of bell towers, clocks and carillons here at St. Peter Catholic Church in Stevens Point, Wis.

Strojny suggested to the pastor to redo the entire tower “to where the clocks work and the bells worked together using a computerized controller, because they weren’t ringing the bells before Mass."

“That was really my first bell tower work,” he added, “and over time then once somebody in a small town finds out that you know some of these things, other churches then ask questions; so, I think I’ve worked on probably four or five other bell towers besides that one.”

The bells of St. Thomas

When the “bells” toll at St. Thomas, you’re not actually hearing bells, Strojny explained, but a “specialized version of a MIDI keyboard and speakers on a stage.” The bells are controlled by a computer housed in a library room not much larger than a closet. Amplified speakers are located in the open-air section of the Rocca-Rutman Tower and are pointed toward campus and away from the neighborhoods to the north and east.

Daily, the bells first ring at 7 a.m. and strike on the hour and every quarter hour until 10 p.m. Strikes on the hour play the full Westminster Chime of 17 notes and also one strike for every hour – 12 strikes for noon, one strike for 1 p.m., two strikes for 2 p.m., and so on. The first strike is always on the hour.

The system’s computer requires minimal maintenance and factors in the start and end of Daylight Savings Time. Over the course of a month, the clock might gain 15 or so seconds, which Strojny corrects.

“I do have to go up there every so often just to reset it back to where it should be. I like to have it toll right on the hour. The other thing the carillon does is at 12:01 and 6:01 is usually play a Marian tune of some kind. There’s a whole library of tunes up there that are devoted to Mary,” Strojny said. "Traditionally, the Angelus bell is rung at these times, but our system is capable of playing more notes."

At times, at 12:01 and 6:01 he will play tunes appropriate to the various church seasons or feast days.

Tradition of the bells

Christians for centuries have associated the ringing of bells with worship. Paulinus of Nola introduced church bells into the Christian Church in 400, Pope Sabinianus officially sanctioned their usage in 604, and church bells were common in Europe by the early Middle Ages.

The tradition continues at St. Thomas.

“From my perspective, bells have always been an instrument that has been used to call people to prayer, to raise your minds, and your hearts and your spirits to God,” Strojny said. “I think they continue to remind people to pause and do that on our campus. … I enjoy standing outside and listening to them. I think they’re beautiful. I’ve always loved the sound of bells.”