FORT KENT, Maine — In 1624 poet John Donne asked, “For whom the bell tolls.” Almost 400 years later, it is tolling for University of Maine at Fort Kent students and alumnae.
During a Thursday morning press conference and presentation, university staff kicked off a $3 million capital campaign that was part history lesson, part public relations event and a bit of mystery with the unveiling of a refurbished bell believed to have once hung in a belfry on the campus’s original Cyr Hall.
That building was demolished in the mid 1950s under an order by Vital Cyr, president of the then Madawaska Training School, and the bell’s story might have ended in the cellar of the building where it lay covered by debris and dirt, if not for the actions of a local contractor with a love for rusty metal.
In 1975 Gilman Babin was a heavy equipment operator for Leo Nadeau Construction which had been hired by the university to replace a storm drain.
“I had to break up an old concrete foundation and I saw that bell buried there,” Babin said Thursday morning at the unveiling ceremony. “It was a lucky thing I liked to collect old junk [and] Leo [Nadeau] saw it and wanted it for his camp.”
For the next two years the old rusty bell sat on Nadeau’s lawn until he finally gave in to the repeated requests of his neighbor and former Fort Kent Town Manager Claude Dumond.
“I kept asking him if he was not doing anything with it, could I have it,” Dumond said Thursday. “He finally said ‘Come and get it, it’s in my way when I mow.’”
It took Dumond and six helpers to move the 600-pound bell to his property where he mounted it on a stand made from an old steel truck rim embedded in concrete.
For the next three decades the bell stayed right there where Dumond would periodically spray paint it gold or silver.
“I am so glad I preserved it,” he said. “I had a feeling some day it would come home to the university.”
The most recent move for the bell came thanks to Dumond’s son George Dumond, a member of the university’s foundation.
“We were having a meeting and speculating about the capital campaign,” the younger Dumond said. “I spoke up and said we had something the university may want back and the campaign could revolve around this relic [and] it took on a life of its own.”
George Dumond’s suggestion became La Cloche de Fer — or Iron Bell — campaign in which the foundation and university are teaming up to raise $3 million for legacy scholarships, academics and capital improvements, including construction and implementation of large-scale biomass energy systems.
“Vital Cyr brought the Madawaska Training School together with the sound of a bell,” Wilson Hess, UMFK president, said. “Classes began and ended to the sound of that bell; meals started and finished to the sound of the bell, and special events were announced with the sound of a bell [and] now that bell has found its way home.”
Along the way, the bell got a much-needed face-lift at the hands of local fabricator and machinist Tony Voisine.
Members of the bell restoration committee had done the best they could tracing the artifact’s history, but lacking a serial number, the best they could come up with was it had been forged sometime between 1875 and 1920.
It was up to Voisine, supplied with little more than the bell and a small photograph of the desired mounting structure, to bring the committee’s vision to life.
“I was proud they chose me for this project,” Voisine said. “It was quite a challenge.”
Using his skills as a “patenteur” — local French for a savvy fabricator — Voisine created the side mounts and support structure for the bell.
Foundation member Danny Labrie volunteered his time sandblasting and painting.
“This bell served such an important purpose on this campus,” George Dumond said. “And to think it almost ended up in a landfill.”
It seemed everyone associated with the project had a favorite memory of the bell.
“This bell means something special to me,” Betty Pecoraro, foundation member, said, comparing it to the area’s Acadian founders who, like the bell, were “Strong and simple in design with hard surfaces pitted with time.”
Fellow foundation member Michael Collins recalled taking cello lessons on campus as a child when he would always take time to pull the rope and ring the old bell.
“My aunt was the music teacher and she would hear that bell ringing [and] come out and say, ‘Michael, get your hiney inside and start practicing.’”
Memories aside, George Dumond said there is still plenty of mystery surrounding the old bell.
“We knew it had the potential to be one of the three original bells on campus,” he said. “One is still hanging above the library and the other would have been in the old model school much farther down the road from where this one was found.”
But why was it removed from the belfry on the old Cyr Hall? What was it doing in that building’s basement and left there when it was demolished? Where and when had it been forged? What caused burn marks on the surface? What created the crack in its side?
“We are hoping someone may have these answers and come forward,” George Dumond said.
In the meantime, the bell will be on tour around the state as an honored guest at various UMFK events including awards banquets, fundraisers and commencements through the capital campaign’s conclusion in 2014 when it will be retired to a specially constructed belfry on campus.
The unveiling of the bell was followed by its first tolling when it was rung four times in honor of four new campus legacy scholarships.
For alumna Burnette Bowker, class of 1960, it was the first time she had heard the bell ring in more than five decades.
“When we heard that bell ring back then we knew it was for us and it meant something special,” Bowker said. “The reasons it rang again today are also special and I am so happy to hear it again.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to UMFK President Wilson Hess as Michael Hess.