The bells of Iowa State

Completed in 1898, the Campanile is a memorial to Margaret Stanton, the first Dean of Women. The Campanile stands at over 110 feet tall and comprises of 50 bells and over 50,000 bricks. 

Audra Kincart

The still of the summer heat is interrupted by the chime of bells.

A faithful colleague of all Iowa Staters stands watching the sweat drip off the backs of returning students.

It listens to the sigh of relief when the sun hides behind a cloud. It welcomes students back to another year of homework and tests.

It stands, omnipotent, as ecology labs venture to study shade and sun leaves. It sings at another proposal. It watches as a nervous freshman walks by in his first semester, and leaves a confident senior in a blink of an eye seven semesters later.

Commonly known as the Campanile, it welcomes us all back with the bells of Iowa State.

The Keeper

Located in the center of Iowa State’s campus stands the Campanile, an icon of the university. The freestanding building towers over the middle of the land-grant college at 110 feet, watching students on their daily walks to class.

Walkways lined with trees cover the 50,000 bricks that form the Campanile – a word stemming from the Latin campana, meaning bell. In the fall, the Campanile juts above the brilliant colors of cardinal and gold, and the sound of 50 solid brass bells is challenged with the crunch of leaves.

The familiar sound of bells shared by students and faculty is produced by an instrument housed 79 steps from the base of the bell tower. That instrument is called a carillon (pronounced care-eh-lawn).

Each day, at 11:30 a.m., Iowa State carillonneur Tin-Shi Tam approaches the base of the Campanile with sheet music in hand. Since 1994, Tam has walked these steps 660,440 times to sit at the carillon. Once the sheet music is unfolded, her arms and legs gracefully move to hit the keys of the organ-like carillon to strike the solid brass bells.

“The bells have a voice, they have a sound,” Tam said. “It’s something you can share, the voice.”

The striking combines to form music that spreads across campus to accompany students scurrying about or running late for their next class.

“Everyone thinks that a little old lady with a hunchback is up here, but someone with a hunchback couldn’t get up here,” she said.

The Campanile has seen five keepers since its inception whose role is to “make sure the carillon is taken care of,” Tam said.

The job description also includes performing noontime concerts for the campus of 36,000 students.

In times past, the Campanile required a golden key to unlock the entryway into the depths of the building’s soul. The first keeper of this key was Ira Schroeder. A table and a set of chairs can still be found in the heart of the bell tower from Schroeder’s time in the 1930s.

This period of time saw the birth of a school tradition, a tradition today known as Campaniling.

It is said that one is not truly a member of the Iowa State community until they have shared a kiss at the base of the Campanile at midnight. Rumor also has it that if a brick fell out of the Campanile and hit your partner’s head during the episode of romance, your companion is a virgin.

Schroeder, who performed midnight concerts, returned to the base of the Campanile some evenings with more than a hundred couples leaving.

Another time, Schroeder found a pile of Styrofoam bricks.

“Some students had fun with that one,” Schroeder said.

And once, he even admitted to playing the Campanile nude on a particularly harsh Iowa August day.

The Dawn

The winter is stark in Ames, but the Campanile shows its architectural beauty through the empty branches and clear sky.

It was a winter of particularly brutal weather in 1899, the year of the birth for the Campanile, when a man helping with construction slipped and was caught by his ankles, saving him from falling to his death. The temperature was 10 degrees below zero.

That year also saw the birth of the bells. Together, the bells have a story of their own.

Scientifically tuned, the bells weight ranges from 400 pounds to 3,600 pounds, courtesy of Taylor Bell Foundry in England. Bryce Taylor, a member of the Taylor family, visited Ames from overseas to view the newest spectacle within the carillon community.

Inside the looming Campanile rang the 50 bells courtesy of his family’s trade secret; a secret that was once almost lost if not for Bryce’s grandfathers. The carillon became the Campanile’s most prominent talent.

To understand how the Campanile was established, flash backward 20 years to university faculty member Edgar Stanton’s winter wedding.

“Mr. Welch was brighter than I,” his wife, Mary, said. “He guessed at once who it was when Mr. Stanton told him he was thinking of being married this winter.”

Margaret McDonald became Margaret Stanton in 1877, and the couple shared a life centered around three kids and campus life at Iowa State.

Their time together was cut short when Margaret passed away, and Stanton dedicated a memorial to his late wife. The freestanding Campanile was built out of love and respect, and later transformed into a landmark of loyalty and pride.


The rebirth of spring brings with it a lawn surrounding the bell tower peppered with students throwing Frisbees and hanging from hammocks. Each spring also brings with it the reunion of the Carillon Foundation, the protectors of the Campanile, whose members are descendants of Edgar Stanton.

“What an honor it is to have something to do with it,” Jennie Gromoll, great-grandniece of Edgar and Margaret, said.

Without the foundation, the Campanile would have lost the whimsy of a live performer and switched to a dead core of digitally-composed concerts.

The foundation was started in 1954 by Gromoll’s grandfather, Arthur Pickford Sr., to turn what initially started as a family donation into a family affair ensuring a fund to protect the soaring tower and its bells.

Today, the foundation includes family members from California to Washington, D.C., some with connections to Iowa State and others without, as well as notable figures including Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Iowa State Alumni Association, and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie.

“We feel strongly about it; the same bells were heard by my relatives,” Gromoll said. “When you come back, it’s home.”