Few who know Hampshire will be surprised that the inspiration for the tradition was an act of empathy
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
– From “Chimes of Freedom,” Bob Dylan, 1964
Every spring, the Div-Free Bell clangs jubilantly from Hampshire’s campus across the trap-rock ridge of the Holyoke Mountains, heard for miles around, day and night for weeks. Few who know Hampshire will be surprised to learn that the inspiration for this tradition, some 35 years ago, was an act of empathy.
At a college where all students for their final year of studies plan, complete, and defend an advanced, intensive independent project before a faculty committee, every tolling represents an undergraduate released from the final evaluation meeting with an assessment of having passed the last degree requirement.
Giving students a bell to chime was not a decision of a college trying to imitate other school traditions, such as William & Mary seniors ringing their Wren Bell to begin commencement festivities, Colgate seniors throwing torches in a fire pit, Wellesley seniors competing at wooden-hoop rolling (and dousing the winner in the lake), and Liberty University nursing students making a bonfire of their scrubs.
Rather, it began as a student sensing a need. “It was spring 1981 and I had passed my Division III and was sitting in the Bridge Café,” remembers Jonathan Frank. “A student approached me, someone who I kind of knew but not well. She was so excited, she just got out of her committee meeting and had passed Div III. You could just see how excited she was. I didn’t really know her. She didn’t have anywhere to go with her excitement but she came up to me and told me her news. I said, ‘Oh, great, congratulations.’”
Frank, who entered Hampshire in the fall of 1976, knew the feeling: He had just completed his Division III, its centerpiece a thesis titled “The Question of Sovereignty over Jerusalem.” And he’d been told by his committee — Penina Glazer (chair), Bob Rakoff, and Leonard Glick — that he’d passed. He described the feeling as a massive buildup of anxiety and excitement and relief, and then nowhere to go with it.
“There was nothing that brought people together to celebrate,” he says. In those days, students could celebrate in Prescott Tavern, as the drinking age was 18, but that was it.
Frank wanted to find a way for students to rejoice. Returning home to Chicago after graduation, he eventually landed on the idea of a bell to ring, a common way for communities to mark festivities. He imagined that Hampshire students who heard the bell no matter where in their studies they were would be encouraged that they could complete their journey
And he also thought of a popular Dylan song that he liked, “Chimes of Freedom,” and its hopeful message in common with Hampshire’s zeitgeist, of freedom for people suffering oppression and injustice. In the lyric, the narrator hears bells of thunder toll and lightning strike for refugees and wrongful convicts, for outcasts and the disabled, for single mothers and broken-hearted lovers, and for “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.”
Frank had about $750 after graduation and decided to use it for a bell. He called Dyan Sublett, who was managing College fund-raising and parent relations. Sublett knew Frank through his mom, Joan Harris, one of the many parents in those early days of the College who volunteered to serve on the board of trustees. She remembers Frank as a playful, joyful student.
“He called me and said, ‘I’d love to donate a bell, something that every student could use to celebrate,’” Sublett says. “Jonathan knew what an enduring gift might mean, and he wanted to make a gift for every student who had the same feeling of wanting to recognize such an achievement.”
Sublett loved the idea and thought it fit the College’s New England setting, where bells ring from white spired churches. She pitched Jonathan’s idea of the Div-Free Bell to President Adele Simmons, other campus leaders, the library, and facilities.
She went back to him and said, “I promise you we’ll get it installed. Your job, Jon, is to find the bell.”
Frank started shopping at antique stores outside Chicago, in northern Illinois, and in southern Michigan. He finally found the right one: “It was a big old brass ship’s bell,” he says. “It read Olinda, the name of the ship.”
Ship bells had both practical and ceremonial uses: to help crews on watch mark their time; as alarms or signals during fog; and for ceremonies such as visits from officers and dignitaries, New Year’s Eve, and baptisms.
Frank had someone build a shipping crate for it, and he transported it via the Greyhound Bus Company. Two years after Frank and his muse had graduated, the bell was hung in the portico. At first the College kept its cable locked to the column, and a student could ring it by getting the key from the faculty chair or from the central records office. The College also mounted a plaque recognizing Frank as the donor.
“It felt like a private hurrah for me,” Frank said. “It was the most subversive thing I could possibly do.”
It was a big old brass ship’s bell.
He had introduced a tradition in a community that usually rebelled against them. “It was a lesson for me,” he said. “People have needs. It’s not enough to be iconoclastic, or revolutionary. We all want a little affirmation.” The bell was adopted immediately.
Tim Shary, who entered Hampshire in 1986, three years after the bell was hung, said, “Scheduling one’s bell ringing had already become quite a tradition by the time I was there. I remember some people treating the bell with sacred reverence — many students believed that you didn’t touch the rope or even walk under the bell until you were truly Div-Free.” In fact, for that reason, the College soon found that it no longer needed to lock the rope.
Shary, who as a student wrote A History of Student Activities and Achievements 1969–91, has not forgotten his bell ringing. “I invited all my friends a couple of hours after my final Div III meeting, had lots of champagne, and played Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s version of ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ on speakers from media services. I was a little ostentatious,” he says.
Once it was up, Frank returned to campus to ring it as well.
Over the course of 35 years, it has become the College’s most practiced tradition, even more so than Halloween. Students plan their own bell-ringing to their liking: an intimate event, with one or a few loved ones and faculty committee members; a large party with lots of friends; naked in the dark of night and posting a photo to social media; a gathering with family during Commencement weekend. Some students bring food and bubbly or other spirits.
In 2003, when the original bell developed a crack, students raised funds matched by a College disbursement to replace it with a new, larger one, which was installed in April 2004.
Now the chief information officer at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for childhood development studies cofounded by his stepfather, Irving Harris, Frank has been pleased to see that over the years Hampshire has embraced the tradition in a range of ways. The bell image has been used in artwork for Commencement and other special events. This year, Hampshire has extended the bell tradition to Orientation: For the first time, new students entering fall 2018 were invited to celebrate the start of their college journey at a Book and Bell Dinner attended by President Miriam Nelson, Dean of Students Gloria Lopez, and Orientation students and staff. For gifts, students received small bells to symbolize what they could look forward to. After dinner, they stood outside the dining commons and rang them together, representing the start of an adventure now bookended by ceremonial bell-ringings.
This year, to mark the end of his term at the College, President Jonathan Lash rang it, as did board members Ken Rosenthal and Bob McCarthy to commemorate the end of their service as well. It was a special moment in particular for McCarthy, who graduated from Hampshire pre-bell, in 1978.
The tradition has been embraced by Hampshire employees too. "Staff that retire hit that bell HARD!" says Stana Wheeler from the Center for Academic Support and Advising.
The bell has made Frank into a campus star. About seven years ago, he said, he went to an alumni get-together at Adele Simmons’s house, introducing Jonathan Lash as the new president. At the end of the night, as he was leaving, he met a young alum, and somehow it came up that he had donated the bell. “I’ll never forget his reaction. He pulled out his cell phone and said, ‘You’re kidding, I’m telling my friends I just met you.’”
Five years ago and weeks apart, Frank brought a son and daughter, two of his triplets, for separate admissions tours. Nomi’s tour was second, and by the time she arrived on campus with her father, word had spread of who he was.
“We walked into the admissions office,” Nomi 14F remembers, “and everyone got really excited and said, ‘It’s the bell guy!’” After a few minutes of being the center of attention, Frank had to stop the admissions team and remind them that his daughter really deserved their attention. Nomi recalls his gesturing toward her: “Ummm, this is my daughter, she’s here to visit.”
Nomi was so amused that when she got back home she made her dad a T-shirt with a bell on it and the words IT’S THE GUY!
Nomi enrolled at Hampshire, and she says seeing the plaque on the library wall with his name on it made her excited to ring the bell. And as she heard it ringing throughout her four years of studies, she said she understood why her father thought fellow students could use the encouragement.
Everyone got excited. “It's the bell guy!”
“I found the academics at Hampshire to be underratedly hard,” she said. “Kids have said to me, ‘I came to Hampshire so I wouldn’t have to do any work.’ And I thought, Good luck with that.”
Nomi says she appreciated how difficult Hampshire was. “Taking classes without having to worry about a grade, it was very freeing. As I wrote my reflection papers, required as part of evaluations, in the process I’d realize I was learning, and I’d be like, ‘Wait, I just learned something.’ Academically, I loved Hampshire.”
For her Division III, Nomi studied the science and visual representations of sound waves; her thesis was titled “Cymatics: The Study of Sound Wave Phenomena, Vibration, and Their Visual Representation.” Her work involved designing sound projects, such as building her own chladni, and experimenting with a range of supplies, such as audio speakers, electromagnets and circuits, ferrofluid, and magnetic particles. Through it all she kept a “mad scientist” journal of all her findings and experiments so she could identify and learn from her mistakes and make improvements to her projects, as well as for regular presentations to her faculty committee. (During Commencement weekend, Nomi presented her thesis at the Division III showcase.)
This spring, as Nomi completed her Division III project, she called her dad and asked if he wanted her to wait and ring the bell with him at Commencement weekend. His response: “No, it’s meant for you to ring when you pass Div III. You can ring it a second time with me.”
So as she and a best friend prepared for their Div III pass meetings, they planned a casual ceremony. “We had our pass meetings back to back; I was first and then she had hers. We waited for each other to go ring the bell together. We got a cheap bottle of champagne. It was fun to plan. I invited my faculty committee, John Slepian and Peter Kallok, and staff member Amy Putnam, who helped me through Div III. She was an honorary committee member.”
Nomi says that looking back, the ringing felt like it was more of a graduation ceremony than the actual Commencement, which was more for family. “For a student, physically being able to ring the bell is the important graduation ceremony,” she said. “It means successfully completing all your hard work at Hampshire.”
At Commencement were Jonathan Frank and the family matriarch — Nomi’s grandma Joan Harris, former Hampshire trustee and recent recipient of the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama for her work as a leader and philanthropist in the arts community. Grandma and Mom and some cousins, aunts, and other grandparents ventured over to the front of the library, crowded with graduates ringing the bell for their loved ones and taking pictures.
Nomi’s family then watched her and “the bell guy” ring the Div-Free Bell together.