For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Marsh Memorial Carillon

Somewhere in the foothills of Athens, West Virginia, a bell tolls. A thundering cascade of peals to be heard for miles. You don’t have to be listening closely to hear it. Every fifteen minutes, the stoic chime sends a molecular chain reaction throughout the Campus Beautiful, penetrating eardrums and notifying you that, yes — you are late for class. This sound unites every student. It is a shared experience between all citizens of Athens, WV, and surrounding areas — to be heard in the wintertime (due to a scientific phenomenon called “air inversion”) across even the New River.  

The Concord Bell Tower is West Virginia’s only true carillon. A carillon is a type of bell played using a keyboard or another automatic mechanism like a piano roll. It is one of the 185 found in the US. Housed in the Marsh Hall Administration building and can be heard across the rolling hillsides of Athens every 15 minutes.  

Dr. J. F. Marsh Jr. The school’s former president, for whom the bell is named, fully funded the carillon which cost $750,000. He was fascinated by the melodic tolls of concert carillons that he encountered in Europe, as well as his own Alma Matter, Dartmouth University. In 1995 while residing on Faculty Hill, he first announced his intentions of bringing a world-class carillon to his hometown. It was dedicated in 1997 and contains 48 bells that range from 4 octaves, harmoniously reminding us of the time, 25 years later. The carillon today is worth close to 2 million dollars.  

As one of the only concert carillons in the nation, it has become a large attraction for students, faculty, residents, and visitors of Concord University. Throughout the years, the school has hosted carillon concerts, the most recent being performed by carillonist Jesse Ratcliffe who is the Choir Director at McMurry University. These concerts are held throughout the year and are open to the public. In June of 2024, the Guild of Carillonneurs is hosting its annual congress meeting at Concord University. Carillonneurs across North America will be flocking to Athens for this historic event.  

Concord University was founded in 1872, originally intended to educate teachers at the nearby “Concord Church,” now known as Athens. What set the school apart in the latter half of the 19th century was its combination of Civil War veterans — Union and Confederate alike. Concord literally means “agreement or harmony between people or groups.” The multifaceted conflict of the Civil War was perhaps the most destructive rending in U.S. History. In some small way, Concord University has attempted to heal that uniquely Appalachian conflict.  

The Marsh Memorial Carillon epitomizes communicative harmony. The carillon’s 48 bells interact delicately yet powerfully — all different sizes and sounds, each serving their purpose for the greater good of the instrument. It is a glorious sound heard, which acts as a small service to students and faculty, relaying to them the time of day. The bell grounds us daily, giving us a sense of place in an often chaotic and divisive world. The carillon remains a constant unifier among people throughout Athens and the surrounding areas.  

British poet John Donne summarizes the carillon’s unifying ability:

John Donne

By Kinsley Mankin and Josiah Smith

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