'Incognito' chimesmaster puts on show for campus at Altgeld

URBANA – On a warm September day, in a square, nonair-conditioned room halfway up Altgeld Hall's tower, 73-year-old Sue Wood hustled across wooden floorboards.

In front of the giant clavier, or keyboard, she pushed lever after lever while moving side to side.

It's "Bees Wax Rag." A fast, upbeat song.

"I try to stick with the tempo of the music. Whatever the music represents I try to put across in the chimes," she said. "If it's a march, I'll play fast, pound it out."

Wood has been entertaining walkers and bikers on the Quad since 1971. Up in Altgeld Hall's playing room, she plays the chimes when students, faculty and staff crisscross campus from one class or meeting to another.

Her repertoire: Songs like "Hail to the Orange."

"America the Beautiful."

Even "Tequila."

"We mostly play things twice. The first is for people to figure out what we're playing. The second is for them to enjoy it," Wood said.

A retired chemist who worked for the Illinois Natural History Survey and the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, Wood first arrived on campus in 1966 as a graduate student. She started attending nearby University Lutheran Church, which has a 25-bell carillon. She enjoyed listening to its music.

Wood played the piano and organ before and thought she'd give the carillon a shot. She practiced for about a year at the Rees Memorial Carillon in Springfield and ended up playing at the Lutheran church for 32 years.

In 1971, she started at Altgeld Hall with former chimesmaster Albert Marien.

More than three decades later she continues to play several times a week "for the pleasure of it," she said.

"Most of the people don't know who's doing it. It's sort of an incognito thing," Wood said.

The playing room is about five stories high; the actual bells are higher than that. They're in a chamber above the room and accessible by more stairs.

In the tower are 15 bells ranging in weight from 350 pounds to 3,300 pounds. Altgeld Hall has chimes; 23 or more bells is called a carillon.

To play the bells, players push down on levers lined up on the clavier (keyboard). The levers are connected to steel cables that run up to the bell chamber and are attached to pulleys and clappers, which strike the stationary bells.

"It takes some getting used to, like any other instrument," said UI sophomore Mark Smith, who also plays the trumpet.

He toured the playing room last year with a fellow Marching Illini member, and this semester he started playing and learning from Wood.

"She taught me everything," he said.

Smith, Wood said, is getting the hang of things. He's no longer pounding or gripping the handle too forcefully, she pointed out to him.

Wood often encourages music students to give the keyboard a shot.

She also takes requests. When Malaysia celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence in August, a student asked her to play the Malaysian National Anthem.

Her personal favorite – her background is Welsh – is "The Ash Grove," a Welsh folk song.

"I love to come here," said UI research specialist Saiko Rosenberger, who brings friends several times a year to the tower and to hear Wood play in person.

"Sue always chooses good songs. If I bring a Chinese friend, she'll play a Chinese song," Rosenberger said.

On Friday Rosenberger brought along a Japanese friend. Wood played "Sakura," or "Cherry Blossom."

As for Rosenberger, she is partial to "Hail to the Orange."

"I love it. It's like, 'Yes! I am here!' "

The tower is open for public tours from 12:30 to 1 p.m. on weekdays when school is in session. The approximately 10-minute chimes concerts are at 12:50 p.m. weekdays and on special occasions such as homecoming and graduation weekends.

More information is also available at www.uiuc.edu/ chimes.

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