In his 1624 poem, “No Man Is an Island,” John Donne, English minister and poet, penned the immortal words “… for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
Had he written similar words in Waco in 1972, perhaps they might have read something similar to “… for whom the bear bell tolls, it tolls for Thee University” (an oft-used nickname for the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher education).
Perhaps an explanation is due:
Bells have been a part of Baylor life since the school’s early days in the town of Independence, Texas in 1846. (Though the institution was chartered on February 1, 1845, operation did not begin until May 18, 1846.)
Twenty-four preparatory-age students composed the first class since college-level courses did not start until June 1847. The young “scholars” were called to classes via the clanging of a small bell that had been given to the school for such a purpose.
The bell was moved to a newly constructed campus soon after the arrival of the institution’s second president, Rufus C. Burleson, in 1851. Since Burleson did not believe the different sexes should co-mingle in the same
classrooms, he placed them in facilities about a mile apart. Seven years later, Texas Lieutenant Governor Albert C. Horton gave a bell to the female department, which in 1866, received a separate charter to become Baylor Female College.
When the university consolidated with Waco University in 1886, it took possession of a large bell that the local educational institute had obtained in 1874. The instrument announced class changes and celebrated intercollegiate football victories along with anything else considered an exceptional occurrence on campus.
Such was the philosophy behind the creation of the Bear Bell, particularly the gridiron aspect.
In the fall of 1971, a small group of male students established a social-service club with the name Sigma Delta Phi. To make the presence of their organization better known and enhance school spirit, the cadre chose a proven “attention-getter,” a bell. Following the adoption of the “clanging symbol,” the young men set about to acquire one.
To do so, they raised $150 and placed advertisements in area newspapers. The bell they found had a $500 price tag, but through “shrewd negotiations” and a lot of earnest begging, the club was able to purchase it for the funds on hand. The front page of the September 12, 1972 issue of the Lariat featured several club members with their new “ringing” possession. It weighed 300 pounds and had a two-and-a-half-foot diameter at the opening. The bell was painted gold and affixed to a white trailer with green trim that had been created from a 1930 pickup truck.
The bell debuted at the Thursday evening campus pep rally preceding the Baylor-Georgia September 16, 1972 football game. Two days later, following a 24-hour drive to Athens, Georgia by four Sigma Delta Phi members, who gingerly hauled the bell in its trailer behind their vehicle, the instrument made its first public appearance.
Unfortunately, the “bargain bell” cracked after only a few uses and soon had to be discarded. A new one, procured in late 1974, arrived just prior to the January 1, 1975 Cotton Bowl Classic in Dallas. The Bear Bell “did its thing” in loudly broadcasting the 20 points made by Baylor, which was sporting its first Southwest Conference crown since 1924. Unfortunately, the Penn State University Nittany Lions scored 41.
Two years later the club became a chapter of the Sigma Chi national fraternity. Though the group now had a new identity and affiliation, the Bear Bell remained foremost in the organization’s promotion of the Baylor spirit. Its sideline resonances after each Baylor touchdown became a favorite highlight of every gridiron battle.
The responsibility for maintaining the safety and operation of the bell lay in the hands of a fraternity member annually elected as the Keeper of the Bear Bell. Sometimes things happened beyond his control. One such incident occurred on October 31, 1982. On the return trip from New Orleans following Baylor’s tilt with Tulane, the trailer was destroyed in an accident. Though the bell and recently added airhorn suffered only moderate damage, the Bear Bell was out of commission for the rest of the season.
The fraternity acquired a new bell (via a donation from Dr Pepper) and equipped it with an improved compressed air system to power a unique train whistle-fog horn sound maker. The Bear Bell began fulfilling its important school-spirit promotion role the following year.
Throughout the remainder of the 1980s, the sounds of Sigma Chi’s “bell and whistles” became a much-appreciated method for acknowledging Baylor’s success on the athletic field. However, by the 1990s, the fraternity began to broaden its interests and Bear Bell activities gradually diminished.
About the same time, a new rule prohibited the university’s live bear mascot from being present at all football contests. Absent the antics of the mascot and the sounds of the whistle and horn, coupled with the ringing of the bell, the games appeared to some Baylorites to be void of the exciting extra-curricular school-spirit to which they had become accustomed. This “vacuum” would soon be filled with displays of spirit when the male freshman Baylor Line was consolidated with the Sidelines female organization.
Today, with the ongoing popularity of Bruiser, the university’s costumed mascot, and his new sidekick, Marigold, as well as the enthusiastic contributions of the Yell Leaders, Songleaders and All Girl Cheer, school spirit at Baylor remains high. Even though the Bear Bell no longer tolls for “Thee University” and its sounds of yesteryear are but faded memories, the spirit it ignited for nearly two decades is a true example of the essence that is truly Baylor.