Happy to chime in

Happy to chime in

By NICHOLAS FORTIN

URBANA — Susanne Wood bustles about the worn, gray floorboards in the playing chamber of Altgeld Hall's chimes tower as she prepares for her daily concert. After 44 years playing the University of Illinois' chimes, Sue knows the routine. She grabs her day's sheet music and shuffles to a small, black music stand next to the keyboard. She listens intently for the 12:50 p.m. bell to ring throughout the university halls, signaling the end of class — and the start of her concert.

"Music soothes the savage mind," says Sue, a short 81-year-old woman with neat salt and pepper hair and thin-rimmed, oval glasses. "It soothes my cares away. It helps me survive."

As the bell sounds, Sue plays her first note — a D — simultaneously pushing down on the board's key with her palm, thumb and pointer finger. In an instant, the note reverberates in the tower and across the quad. Sue is careful not to hold the key too long so the clapper that strikes the appropriate bell 65 feet above the playing chamber will quickly release from the bell and not muffle the sound. Higher notes — F and G — come next as the bells clang into action and "Hail to the Orange" becomes recognizable. Of course, Sue plays the song from memory.

"I try to tailor what I play to the faculty, staff and, a little bit, older generation," she says later. And, as if to make the point, she plays "Hail to the Orange" one more time. As she strikes each key, the music energizes her.

Music was always at the heart of Sue's life. Born in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., she grew up in a music-loving household. Her father's love of music was seen in his collection of 78 records, most of which Sue still has in the basement of her Philo house. Her father constantly played records — the "William Tell Overture" was one of his favorites — and whistled along. Sue's mother had a beautiful voice but never sang publicly. Instead, she would sing along to the radio or to church hymns while working around the house. When Sue was 10, her family got a piano and, before long, she was playing it for fun. With her parents' encouragement, she began their mornings playing hymn music to ease her and her family into the day.

"Music laid the groundwork for every day," she says. "My mind was in an even temperament for the rest of the day."

Sue was a science aficionado in high school but she always made time for her piano. She kept playing while at the University of Buffalo. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in biology, Sue moved to Champaign in 1966 and earned her doctorate in plant pathology. She also met her future husband, Bruce, a fellow graduate student. They have been married 44 years. Sue fell into the chimes by chance. In 1968, the pastor at her University Lutheran Church asked her to play the church chimes. She had never played them so she took lessons at the carillon in Springfield.

A few years later, she met university chimesmaster Albert Marion. When she told him she played the chimes, he jumped at the chance to get free help, and Sue started playing at Altgeld on Albert's days off.

Today, after finishing "Hail to the Orange," Sue breaks into "This Land is My Land," "Simple Gifts" and six more songs during the 10-minute concert. She comes alive at the bells. Her hands move swiftly and a huge smile flashes across her face as she shuffles deftly from side to side along the six-foot keyboard. She tunes out the world while playing, and that is easy to do: The sound of the keys reverberating against the keyboard is overpowering in the playing chamber and almost drowns out the sound of the bells that only trickles in from the tower high above.

Next she plays an infrequent contemporary song, "Yesterday," by the Beatles. Sue tends to play the classical music or old folk tunes she loves and leave the contemporary music to her college-age volunteer chime students. Today, for instance, she plays "Rondeau" by Mouret and "Katiusha," a Russian folk song. She sees her choice of music as her way of bringing culture to campus, her contribution to getting students to "unplug" from technology and appreciate music.

When Albert Marion stepped down as chimesmaster in 1994, Sue took over. The unpaid position came with only two perks: A parking space — which Sue had to negotiate for with the university — and Albert's spot at the annual congress of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. Sue always had her other life — working variously as a scientist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, and as veterinary research specialist in the university's vet school, among other jobs, before retiring in 2003. But she always made time for the chimes.

Because she worked on campus most of her career, Sue used her lunch breaks to either supervise her students playing or play during the daily concert herself. On the side, she continued to play the chimes at the University Lutheran Church, play the organ at her own church in Philo, and play in a Russian orchestra on campus for which she mastered the bass balalaika.

Yet the chimes have been her constant.

In the tower, Sue checks her watch and sees that she's running late. She thinks she has enough time to finish a final song, but the automatic 1 p.m. bell rings before she can get through the Illinois state song — aptly named "Illinois" — and she stops abruptly. Done with her day's concert, Sue is satisfied.

"Music," she says, "is the thing that makes life worth living."

Slices of Life

This story was written by a journalism student in Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class at the University of Illinois. Funding was provided by the Marajen Stevick Foundation. You can buy the book "Slices of Life," a series of stories by writers in Harrington's class. Each story is a short peek into the lives of East Central Illinois residents.

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