Tower stands for more than most realize



Students walk on campus, focused on homework and becoming one with the university.

And standing tall, watching over them all – as it has since 1926 – is the famous clock tower.

The neo-Gothic structure stands 175 feet tall in what is considered the center of campus, but many students seem to forget about it.

“I think when students see things every day, they overlook it,” said Reece Rusniak, an 18-year-old freshman majoring in biochemistry. “I acknowledge it almost every time I walk by it because there are always people working on it.”

Scaffolding has been around the structure for months as maintenance work is being done.

“I guess I forget about it sometimes too because it’s the same color as the other buildings,” said Rusniak.

The clock tower has a long and interesting history.

It serves as a memorial for students who were killed in World War I.

It was built around the smoke stack of the university’s central heating plant, with stone bricks used to match the other buildings at the time.

In 1918 the world was at war, with great empires clawing at each-other.

Caught in the middle were ordinary young men.

The tower is dedicated to 12 of the university’s students who became heroes in their death, fighting for their nation on the battlefields of France and on the wintery plains of Russia, as well as while training in the United States.

“It’s sweet how they are still honoring them after this long,” said Claire Barton, a 19-year-old nursing major in her sophomore year. “People just think it’s a regular clock tower, but in reality it has much more meaning behind it.”

Not all of the clock tower’s history evokes a solemn, melancholy mood.

According to the university archives, in 1953 on one quiet night, the clock struck midnight and the bells started to ring on and on and on – and wouldn’t stop.

The Rev. George Shiple, superintendent of the grounds and buildings, woke up cleric Jimmy Valentine, the only man on campus that summer with keys to get into the building.

He was sent to turn off the bells. He did so, and they didn’t ring for another 13 years.

In 1965, more than a decade later, the clock tower under went repairs as a gift from the students of the university.

Thomas Toenjes, the senior electrical engineer, and his associates, Edward Sailer, Peter Kay and Leo Moore, spent months of their own time repairing the clock tower.

Ever since the clocks were installed, the four faces have rarely shown the exact time.

Each clock face has its hands set on a different time.

When it was repaired, the university paid for $800 for the materials to fix it.

Finally, the clocks were running on time.

But the clock tower still didn’t have bells at this point.

In 1966, Paul Bricker, a graduate student, and members of the University of Detroit Ham Radio Club put in 500 of their own free hours along with $500 for equipment and materials to get the bells ringing again.

On Oct 20, 1966, the 1,100-pound bells rang again for the first time since 1953.

The clock tower also plays a part in ROTC history on campus.

The university military training corps used the clock tower as a climbing station.

Recruits climbed to the top of the tower and used a mock-parachute to jump to safety.

This was done to pass the ROTC course.

And in 1977 for the 50th anniversary, the tower got a much-needed low-pressure power wash, returning it (for awhile) to its former glory.

The next time you glimpse the old building, see it not as an old tower that just tells time, see it as a representation of the long history of the university.

“It’s wonderful to see that they’re finally doing some restorations to it,” said Ben Westphal, a 22-year-old senior. “The clock tower has been around for almost one hundred years and is extremely old and them doing this work will hopefully extend its legacy on campus for a long time.”


The heroes

Twelve men are listed at the base of the clock tower.

All were students at the university who lost their lives in World War I.

  • Thomas Gerald Kennedy, who enlisted in the artillery and was transferred to the air corps and died in a plane crash.
  • Russel William McBearthy, who enlisted when the war broke out and was wounded several times. His record of gallantry closed when he died of pneumonia at age 19.
  • William J. Wilkinson enlisted in the 308th Infantry of the 77th Division. He was the graduating class president of 1914 and he died of his injuries in 1919.
  • Thomas Abbot Abrey enlisted in 1917 on his 22nd birthday. He went to France to fight and was killed in battle on Sept. 18, 1918.
  • John R. DesChamps came from the oldest French family in Detroit. He joined the air corps and died in a plane crash in 1919.
  • Roger S. MacNamara joined the navy and was sent to Great Lakes Training Station in Waukegan, Illinois. He died of pneumonia shortly after arriving.
  • Lionel Esslin found his resting place near the village of Lucy De Boureage near Belleau Woods after being killed in action carrying dispatches through the heat of battle.
  • Alfred Fuller enlisted in the famed 339th Infantry Division and fought alongside the British at the battle of Kodish, defeating the Russians but losing his life.
  • James M. Williams, drafted into the 328th air squadron, died of pneumonia while training in Texas 1918.
  • Privates Edward Burns, Charles Harrison and Louis Mans are also listed on the memorial as having lost their lives, though the circumstances of their deaths weren’t noted.