Bell Tower worker Don Swem visits UNK campus one last chime before retirement

The Antelope

KEARNEY – Don Swem calls himself a “ding-a-ling.”

Once a year, the 82-year-old harnesses himself into a cherry picker to inspect and clean the University of Nebraska at Kearney Bell Tower. He turns off his hearing aids to dull the noise as he carefully dislodges bird nests and feathers.

“Once I’m up that high in the tower, unless somebody really hollers, I have no idea that they’re talking,” Swem said. “So, it’s pretty quiet. Just me and the birds.”

Swem has made yearly trips to Kearney from Grand Rapids, Michigan, since 1995. This fall, he visited UNK one last time before retirement.

Previously, Swem’s mechanical experience came from farm chores and working on pipe organs with his father. When a church leader asked if the duo could clean the bells too, his father recommended him for the job.

Since then, he has worked on bells for 52 years.

The self-employed service technician was contracted by Verdin, a company in Cincinnati, to work on projects such as the UNK Bell Tower. The craft has taken him to Brazil, France, Israel, all of the Canadian provinces and 48 states. Hawaii and Alaska are the only two states he has yet to visit.

Throughout his career, Swem became unbothered by birds, noise and heights.

“Working up high is not the problem,” Swem said with a grin. “It’s the sudden stop at the bottom.”

Once the tower is in good shape, he ventures belowground to examine the panel that controls all 24 of UNK’s bells. To access the panel, Swem ducks through a tunnel below Calvin T. Ryan Library.

The panel has a button for each bell. When a key is pressed on the keyboard or the automatic controls are set, it fires the corresponding electronics and strikes the bell.

He also has access to the piano keyboard on which new tunes can be programmed into the bells, though Swem doesn’t play.

He identified the current Bell Tower melody as the English Whittington tune.

“(The UNK Bell Tower) is unique,” Swem said. “I have not seen one exactly like this. It’s freestanding in the middle of a courtyard, which makes a very nice setting. And you can hear the bells well anywhere in this courtyard.”

David Burnham, the UNK maintenance manager, met with Swem briefly before he left campus.

“He talked about bells like they were his kids,” Burnham said. “That art is going away. I think his legacy is just going to be his knowledge, and his work ethic is pretty incredible.”

Swem will retire in November to tackle his “honey-do” list and spend more time with his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The UNK maintenance team will find someone new to service the bells in the future.

Though Swem doesn’t plan on returning to work, the chimes still echo in his heart as he says goodbye to UNK and his career.

“I know an awful lot of guys that finally said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m going to do something else,’” Swem said. “Six months to a year later, they’re back working on the bells again. It gets into your bloodstream, and you’re hooked.”

This story first appeared in The Antelope student newspaper