Construction workers will be leaving the top of the UT tower today.
For almost six months, the university’s famous carillon bells were silent while the crew performed some pretty extensive renovations. All 56 bells were taken down and re-cast. Now that the largest carillon in Texas is reassembled, it just needs to be fine-tuned.
Austin Ferguson pulls his wooden bench closer to the keyboard and starts playing. His fists hit the carillon’s top wooden keys. His bare toes hit the lower ones.
Ferguson is the student director of UT’s Guild of Carilloners. We are on the tower’s 32nd floor, a part of the tower that’s not accessible to the general public. We open the windows to better hear the sound this giant instrument makes.
As Ferguson plays, Tim Verdin, a bell restoration expert, listens in. Verdin tells Ferguson he still has to work on an F pedal that won’t hit its bell. “Gotcha!” exclaims Ferguson as his face lights up, “because I was like ‘why the hell is it not working? I don’t understand.” Verdin tells him it’ll be ready soon and that he’s already fixed a couple other keys.
Tim Verdin is one of a very small number of bell experts in the United States. That’s in part because there are very few carillons in the country. Just 180 in all of North America. It’s a family tradition for Verdin. “I am one of the sixth generation Verdins,” he says, “we’ve been in business for 170 years.”
The Verdin family has sent its experts from the base in Cincinnati to Texas several times, since Texas has the most carillons in the country. “It’s actually the company that installed this instrument back in 1936,” Ferguson says. The same family added bells and renovated the existing ones in the eighties. Tim Verdin says several guys that worked on the renovations still work for the company.
By the end of the day today, the fine-tuning process will be completed. The bells will again sound as pristinely as they did when they were first cast. That’s a delight for the only two men who are allowed to play them, Austin Ferguson and 90-year-old Tom Anderson who started playing back in ‘52.
But, beyond the sound, Ricardo Puémape says, the instrument underwent this makeover because of safety concerns. Some of the bells literally weigh tons and were so badly corroded there was concern they could fall. Then there were the high levels of original lead paint lining the inside walls of the Tower. “So, it was all re-painted and then a new cat-walk system for maintenance was built,” Puémape says before the catwalk was built, “workers would just climb to the frame and do their best.”
There’s no need to climb on the frame anymore. Now, there’s easy access to the bells and some systems have been upgraded to digital formats. Puémape expects the renovations will last at least for the next 25 years. By then, Verdin hopes one of his daughters could oversee any renovations.
Before we part ways, Austin Ferguson says “every time [there’s] somebody new [at the carillon] we have to do this.” His fists begin pounding the keys one more time and his toes move fast to the sound of “The Eyes of Texas.” That’s how he sends me on my way down the tower steps that lead me back from the 32nd floor and to the 27th where the elevators are.