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Chautauqua Institution Says Goodbye to Chimemaster

By Joyce Kryszak

Chautauqua Institution, NY – Tradition is an integral part of what makes the Chautauqua Institution the endearing summer community it's been for more than 125 years. From Old First Night to the Drooping of the Lilies, Chautauquans have a season filled with recurring favorites. But next season, one person won't be returning to his traditional role.

The Institution's beloved Chimemaster began ringing a new bell this January, when he was sworn in as the mayor of Mansfield, Pennyslyvannia. For 33 years, Tom Wierbowski has been coming here, hearing the bells, growing to love them. So, it was only fitting when, nine years ago, he became their master.

Last summer, we visited Tom at his neat brick, home away from home. Tom arrived... well, like clockwork...just in time to perform his noon program at the Miller Bell Tower. Fifteen minutes of bells -- spanning the musical spectrum from church hymns, to folk songs, to musical humor.

Tom's fingers glide effortlessly over the keyboard, cueing each of fourteen bells suspended far overhead, to ring in perfect harmony.

"You have a lot of traditions here at Chautauqua don't you?" asked reporter Kryszak. "Oh yes," Wierbowski responded. "In fact, there's a joke here, How many Chautauquans does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is, change?"

Without missing a beat, Tom begins to tell the tower's rich history.

"In the very first years the bells were loaned to them by the Kimberly and Meneely Company of Troy New York," he explained. "And then the bells were sold at the end of the assembly -- you know, your church needs a bell, your school needs a bell, well, have I got a deal for you -- so they wouldn't have to ship them back to Troy."

Listening, it's clear that Wierbowski has told the well worn story to countless visitors before. But it's a story he clearly still enjoys telling - and being part of. He recalls fond memories of special events - and some rather unusual special requests - like the time he played for a Chautauquan's relative who listened over the phone from Poland.

"I reached behind me and grabbed a book of Polish tunes, and started playing the Polish National Anthem," said Wierbowski. "So, I played Happy Birthday and the Polish National Anthem in Chautauqua, and they listened to it in Poland."

Wierbowski recounts other favorite stories, and tells more of the bell tower's rich history, as he takes us up the spiral staircase, for a rare visit to the top. It's a welcoming place -- filled with all the musty, warm history of nearly a century.

The tower's clock, and its chimemaster both run with precision. During the season, there are three, 15-minute programs -- promptly at 8am, at noon, and another at 6pm. And, in between the chimes beckon every 15 minutes. Wierbowski says Chautauqua has been running on bells since 1874.

"People move by the bells, conduct their lives by the bells," said Wierbowski. "And last year when the bells were not working for three and half weeks, due to a lightening strike, people were late for the concerts, over teaching their classes, late getting up in the morning -- just wandering around, sort of aimlessly, at Chautauqua, because they didn't have the structure of the bells to keep them in line."

For Wierbowski, this was a bittersweet trip upstairs to visit the bells. It was one of his last as chimemaster of Miller Bell Tower. This January, Wierbowski started playing a different tune, as the newly elected mayor in his hometown of Mansfield, Pennsylvannia. And sadly, his new duties will keep him from dedicating a full summer of playing the chimes at Chautauqua. So, Wierbowski is stepping down.

Wierbowski says he will miss being Chimemaster, overseeing one of Chautauqua's most important traditions. But he says his decision to become a public servant honors another of Chautauqua's strong traditions.

"Much of Chautauqua happens on volunteerism," said Wierbowski. "From the people who donote freely to the campaigns, and seeing that the financial backing of Chautauqua is here, to people who volunteer helping with tours and all of that -- that's what America is all about."

And, indeed, in true Chautauqua spirit -- someone has stepped forward to take over the rather unusual -- and demanding rigors of chimemaster. This season, the bells rope gets passed from Wierbowski to Carolyn Benton -- Chauatauqua's newest chimemaster.