URBANA — Jonathon Smith will never forget walking across the University of Illinois Quad and hearing the bells in the Altgeld Hall tower for the first time.
Familiar with the small carillon at the University of South Carolina near his home, he found information online about the 15 bells and the Altgeld Ringers on the UI campus, which led him to visit the campus landmark.
“Sure enough, there are bells up there, and there’s an old lady playing them,” said Smith, who went on to become an Altgeld Ringer.
That lady, Chimesmaster Sue Wood, would become his mentor, showing him the ropes. Or in this case, the wires — steel cables that connect the clappers inside the bells with levers down below on what looks like a large keyboard, called a clavier.
Mrs. Wood, who passed away Oct. 6, was known for saying that music is the thing that makes life worth living, so it’s fitting she be memorialized across campus today with a musical tribute played on the very bells that she operated for 45 years.
And Smith, who succeeded Mrs. Wood in 2016 as Altgeld chimesmaster, is coming back to campus to be part of today’s show. Smith stepped away from the role earlier this year, handing the chimesmaster title to Tina Horton, a UI grad student in musicology.
“I’m glad we’re doing it,” Smith said. “She was just so dedicated to those bells. They were part of her identity.”
50 years on campus
Smith and Horton, along with returning alumni and current members of the Altgeld Ringers, will honor Mrs. Wood with a performance set to begin at 3 p.m. at Altgeld Hall, 1409 W. Green St., U.
Altgeld Tower bell concerts are performed weekdays from 12:50 to 1 p.m. when UI classes are in session, and other concerts, like this one, are saved for special occasions.
The concerts have been a tradition since 1920, when the University Chime was installed. The chimesmaster supervises the chimes players — volunteer UI students and faculty members.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Mrs. Wood came to the UI as a microbiology graduate student in 1966 and went on to earn her Ph.D. in plant pathology.
Five years later, the lifelong music enthusiast was recruited to play the 25-bell carillon at University Lutheran Church, which led to a regular gig on the Altgeld chimes. A scientist at the Illinois Natural History Survey and later at the College of Veterinary Medicine, she took over as Altgeld chimesmaster in 1994, retiring from the role in 2016.
‘An inspiring woman’
At today’s memorial concert, the Altgeld Ringers will play some of Mrs. Wood’s favorites, including the traditional folk song “The Ash Grove,” old-time Americana and, of course, “Hail to the Orange.”
“She loved playing the Illinois school song,” said Horton, who took Mrs. Wood’s tour of the Altgeld Hall tower, which inspired her to become a chimes player.
“She was such an inspiring woman, and I thought ‘This is really cool,’” said Horton, explaining that Mrs. Wood taught her students to always incorporate the school song into every performance. Horton said she and Smith made an official chimes player handbook recently and weaved in the Altgeld bells history that was written by Mrs. Wood. They’ll continue to pass down to future chimes players the traditions that Mrs. Wood maintained for so many years.
“This is a wonderful tribute to Sue Wood, the woman who provided the daily soundtrack to life at this university for so many years,” UI Chancellor Robert Jones said. “I hope everyone takes a moment during the concert to offer a smile in appreciation of the music Sue brought into so many lives on our campus.”
The memorial concert is free and open to the public. Guests can enjoy the music in the area of the Alma Mater statue or nearby on the Main Quad.
If you go
➜ What: A free memorial concert honoring late Altgeld Hall Chimesmaster Sue Wood
➜ When: 3 p.m. today
➜ Where: Altgeld Hall on the UI campus, 1409 W. Green St., U