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Bells Restored

Donation for maintenance of bells revives familiar tune on campus

James Hurd

From Bell Tower - Fall 2020

Despite frequent updates and renovations to the buildings that surround it, Kuehne Bell Tower may still be Washburn University’s most iconic structure. The centrally located, 55-foot tower sets a visual tone that is secondary only to the audible one that can be heard from every inch of campus.

Since the tower’s construction in 1971, and dating back even further to the bells’ initial installation 110 years ago, the hourly Westminster tune has provided a serene soundtrack for Ichabods strolling to class – or a warning signal for those running behind.

The bells sat silent the past four years, in need of maintenance until Dr. James Hurd, ba ’67, chimed in with a donation that will keep them ringing for generations to come.

Hurd’s Calling

After receiving his bachelor of music degree, Hurd performed as an organ soloist in cathedrals and churches nationwide and abroad. For someone whose world was opened up by music, Hurd was shocked to learn the bell tower at his alma mater was muted for so long and established the Dr. James Hurd Family Bell Tower Fund to provide care and restoration of the bells and tower.

“Being a music major, there’s really a sort of a connection to the bells, seeing as they’re a musical item,” he said. “As much as Washburn has given to me as a student and continues to today, I thought this would be a good way of giving back.”

The Topeka native fondly remembers hearing the bells ring from Thomas Gymnasium as a freshman in 1965, the final year before the building’s destruction in the Topeka tornado.

“It just added a certain ambiance to the campus, in the days I was there,” he said. “Students didn’t have cellphones, so they’d walk to class in silence and hear the bells ring out.”

The 2,275-pound bells, built by the Meneely Bell Company, in Troy, New York, were a surprise gift from Jonathan and Josephine Thomas to Washburn in 1910. Unlike the gymnasium that housed them, the bells weathered the tornado in 1966 and found a new home when Fred and Julia Kuehne made a donation for the creation of Kuehne Bell Tower.

By the time the tower was completed in 1971, Hurd was well on his way to checking off career goals thanks to guidance from former Washburn music department chairs, Everett Fetter and Floyd Hedberg, and former organ professor, Max Elsberry, who provided a blueprint he followed faithfully. Like Elsberry, Hurd wanted to become an organist at a large church, teach organ at the college level and perform in famed European cathedrals.

“I managed to cover all three of those areas,” Hurd said. “He really laid a pattern for me. He seemed happy doing it, and it’s brought a lot of joy to me too. Washburn made a lot of dreams come true for me.”

Sharing Notes

Hurd furthered his education with a master’s degree from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and a doctorate from the University of Southern California. He was hired as an organ professor at El Camino College in 1973, where he continues to teach 48 years later.

He recognizes a majority of students enroll in his music appreciation classes simply seeking to fulfill their general education requirements, but they leave with what the course name promises: an appreciation for music.

“They come away saying they enjoyed it a lot more than they thought they would,” Hurd said. “I claim that, for many college students, this will be the last music class they every take, so I give them insights in how to listen to all kinds of music, not just classical. This class is to give you a new set of ears.”

Sometimes Hurd even treats El Camino College to music of his own. The college, with an enrollment of 24,000 in Torrance, California, has a bell tower that sounds the same hourly tune as Washburn’s, and occasionally, Hurd plays the bell keyboard for all to hear.

“I’ve really enjoyed passing music on to the next generation, the same way it was passed on to me at Washburn,” he said.

His talents have been recognized by more than just students. The First Presbyterian Church of Inglewood, California, awarded Hurd the status of “A Living Legacy” following his 23 years as the church’s organist and music director, titles he now holds at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Redondo Beach, California. In 2018, he received an Excellence in Arts Award from the Torrance Cultural Arts Commission.

“That was really uplifting for me,” Hurd said. “It was the city’s way of thanking me for my contributions, and hundreds of people attended. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in music and what you’re engaged in, you don’t realize other people are taking note.”

In between honors in California, Hurd has made trips back to his hometown for additional recognition. He was named a Washburn Alumni Fellow in 2015, and Topeka High School asked him to play a short program, including the school song, at his 55th class reunion in 2018.

As Hurd begins to set sights on retirement, he expects visits to his alma maters will soon become even more frequent. Much of Washburn has been rebuilt since he walked between classes as an undergraduate student, but thanks to his contributions, the next time he sets foot on campus, he’ll experience a familiar ring.

“I’m looking forward to coming back and hearing those bells,” Hurd said. “People in the community have been emailing, thanking me because they can hear the bells again, and that makes me very happy.”

Kuehne Bell Tower

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1729 MacVicar Avenue
Topeka, KS 66604 Phone: 785.670.4483