In 1912, Seattle Times Publisher A.J. Blethen donated twelve bells to the University of Washington. What was once a water tower became UW’s Blethen Chimes Tower. The wooden tower was next to the Observatory near 45th Street and 17th Avenue. The setup was all fine, but what to do with it?
Enter George Bailey. Bailey graduated from UW in 1917. Beginning with his graduation ceremony, Bailey became the musician behind the bells. For thirty-seven years, he would walk to the tower and send music across the campus.
The “wake-up concert” would begin at 7:50 a.m. to rouse students for their 8 a.m. classes. There were noon and afternoon performances. Sunday concerts contained religious music. Songs like, “Bell of St. Mary’s” and “Lullaby of Bells”, were heard by the UW community. For the sports fans, the football scores would be sounded out at the conclusion of home games. (He would use the biggest bell for the UW alma mater. The other team was afforded the small bell.)
As to Bailey? It sounds very much like he lived a simple life. He would stroll the ten blocks from his house to the Chimes Tower for each performance. He was blind, but canes and dogs were not for him. Instead, he would whistle and used sonar as he felt the soundwaves bounce off of his surroundings.
He inserted humor and commentary into his performances. On the week of his marriage and when his offspring was born, he played love songs. When freshmen were having their orientation, he would play, “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread).” The end of finals brought, “(There’ll Be a) Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
On May 23rd, 1949, he played “Summertime”, unaware of what would happen next. On May 24th, Chimes Tower caught fire at seven a.m. Bailey was getting ready to walk to campus when he was told the news. The great heat and the quick cooling of the fire hoses caused the bells to crack.
Later in 1949, a new carillon system was introduced. It utilized small, tuned metal rods for the notes of the scale. The rods were struck by electro-mechanical strikers. The music was then sent to the speakers in Denny Hall’s tower. Bailey had thirty-seven notes to work with. He made new arrangements and took requests until he passed in 1960. A sample of Bailey’s music can be heard here.
(A new set of carillon bells were installed at Kane Hall in April of 2018. They were donated by an alum who grew up hearing the original bells with his grandfather. He also donated changing ringing tower bells to Gerberding Hall in 2008.)