The man behind the bells

Published Nov. 6, 2012

From a small room tucked away at the bottom of the hill in Holcomb Gardens, a smiling man delicately strokes the keys of a converted organ console, as he has done for over forty years.

The sounds of bells ring from a cabinet in front of him, and the music falls on the malls and halls of Butler University.

“A lot of people come out and sit in their cars and listen,” William Engle said. “They don’t really care if it’s human or not, it’s just a lovely sound. They don’t care how it’s made, just the fact that it is made.”

Engle is the man behind the bell tones ringing through campus each week.  He is Butler‘s carillonneur, the man who has controlled the bells since 1972.

A carillon is the instrument that makes the bell sounds heard from the Mrs. James Irving Holcomb Memorial Carillon Tower. The bells can be played just in the small carillon room, or played to the whole campus through the tower’s speakers.

When he first stepped on Butler’s campus as a part of the class of 1965,  the sound of the bells caught Engle’s attention.

Intrigued by the sound, he took a class for four semesters teaching him how to play the carillon. During the summer, his professor allowed him to play concerts.

Engle was eventually asked to succeed his professor when he died.

“I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’” Engle said. “I didn’t know that years and years and years later, I’d still be here doing it. I love playing just because of the people I meet.”

Now the carillonneur takes requests and performs a concert every Sunday at 5 p.m., June through September.

Meeting people and sharing in their lives is what brings Engle so much satisfaction. People listen to his music for many different reasons, and he has many stories to share.

Engle was once asked to play a special carillon concert for a woman’s dying relative, who lived near campus and listened for the bells each day.

He played her a special concert, and the same songs were used at her memorial service.

Another family brought their mother to him because she listened to him play for years, and she asked Engle to play a few songs for her.

Three weeks later, the family came back without her. While Engle was playing his normal Sunday evening summer concert, the family walked around the gardens spreading her ashes.

Engle keeps a scrapbook of all the letters and pictures families send him. He has multiple scrapbooks because he has received so many letters of gratitude.

“People write about their families and things, just being here in the gardens, and what playing for them means,” he said.

The carillon at Butler is special in that there is someone to play it regularly. There are eight sets of carillon bells in Indiana, and only one other carillon in the state is played regularly.

Engle said the worst thing about keeping a carillon around is when it tells you that you’re going to be late for class.

When asked why he still plays, Engle said, “It’s becoming a collective memory. I’ve always done this. It gives people such pleasure.

It’s part of the spirit life at Butler, just like the marching band and the basketball band are—just a different kind of ‘rah.’”

A little-known treasure on campus, the carillon and Engle continue to bring the bells to life every day.

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