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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Meet Charlie


Perched at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Park Street, Grinnell United Methodist Church (GUMC), recognizable by its white brick exterior and impressive architecture, makes itself known to the community at large. While this cannot be said for every building or business in town, GUMC stands out in the day-to-day lives of Grinnellians. If you approach any student that frequents the south end of campus, they will likely recognize the chime of the church’s bells, which ring every day without fail at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 5 p.m.

The S&B reached out to GUMC with the hope of uncovering a story that involved a little old man who lived in a bell tower and could impart all the wisdom of the world onto us. However, as many stories do, this one took a different direction. Instead of a little old man with a long beard, the bells are rung by ‘Charlie’ — who ended up being both relatively young and also not really a man at all.

Charlie, or ‘Charlie 2.0’ as he is called in a professional setting, is a machine — the second carillon bell chime that the church has installed since its decision to switch to a partially modernized sound system.

Photo by Ingrid Meulemans

Ashley Risting, director of Christian education and youth services, has worked at the church for over 10 years, so she knows a thing or two about the building’s architectural history.

Before I had the chance to see Charlie in person, though, Rister had to unlock Charlie’s “room.” Rooting through a cabinet of various church keys, she explained how and why Charlie got his name.

“When I first came here, that was just the nickname they had for him,” said Rister. “So, that’s what we call him. It’s easier than saying the carillon. The other thing is that we have a carillon bell choir made up of hand bells, so it’s way easier than saying the carillon bell chimes that play outside. So, if I call him Charlie you know what I’m talking about.”

Time was of the essence as we made our way back into the church’s sanctuary, and just moments before the clock struck nine, I found myself face to face with Charlie. He was smaller than I had imagined — humbler.

Photo by Ingrid Meulemans

Reaching only chest high while resting on the podium, he was a homely, squat little machine quite different from the glamorous, tech-savvy robot I had concocted in my mind. Before I had time to fully process this though, he rang out the first few notes of “Now Thank We All Our God.”

“And there he goes,” said Risting, glancing at her watch.

“We always leave a key in this machine,” explained Risting. “We have it automatically set to play at 9 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. There are these old school discs that go into Charlie (like memory cards) and [you] download them onto him. He has a database of all sorts of advent carols, ordinary carols, epiphany carols and so on. So, we would tell Charlie that starting the day after Christmas until the end of Epiphany, play from this particular data base.”

Much of Charlie’s original programming, however, can be attributed to Julie Bey. Bey served as the church’s organist and pianist for many years. She also led the bell choir and was director of the praise team. Bey now works in Des Moines, but she programmed about a year’s worth of carols into Charlie before her departure from the GUMC.

Despite Charlie’s charmingly retro appearance, he is relatively new.

“This machine is only 10 years old,” said Risting. “We got it when we re-did the organ. They can play together now. So, like for weddings, we can play music at the same time the bell tolls, and [synchronize it with] our hand-held bells. We can say ‘Start now!’ and when the bride and groom walk out and their guests throw rice, all of the music will be playing. It’s actually very modern technology. It just looks kind of old.”

While GUMC still needs real humans to play the organ, the technology behind the sound system has revolutionized worship services.

“Our whole sound system is a conglomerate of electronic and real. So, we can plug a USB drive in there and have something playing automatically, and we can also have organ players,” said Rister.

And although the church bells are no longer rung by altar boys up in the bell tower, some things never change. Rister knows the small joy the carols bring to the streets of downtown Grinnell.

“It’s nice to hear them,” said Rister. “Especially during the middle of a workday.”

And while he may not have been a hunched-over old man with a beard, Charlie is doing a pretty good job bringing music to the people of Grinnell. Despite his memory discs and laminate casing, one could even go so far as to say that, yes, he is a real boy after all.

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