Hanging from the archway of a still brand new colonnade, the more-than-100-years-old Victory Bell has become a fixture inside Bulldog Stadium. Its unmistakable reverberating clangs come alive often on crisp fall Saturdays. It’s part of a well-established tradition that’s uniquely Concordia University, Nebraska. Said 1952 graduate John “Sid” Seevers, “You would hear that and you knew we had a victory.”
For many years now, this majestic bell has signaled victory for the Bulldogs. But why? And do any of today’s Concordia athletes who do the honors of ringing it really know the history? That’s incredibly unlikely, because many of the details of the bell’s whereabouts over its long lifespan have been scattered amongst the minds of many who may have encountered the beastly bronze artwork that has stood the test of time. Those people have come and gone. Many people know something about the bell, but no one seems to know the entire story. We may never reconstruct its complete journey.
The truth is that The Victory Bell has sometimes been cast aside, left behind in storage or simply laid to rest next to the structure that is currently known as the hitting center, situated on the southeast part of campus. Rarely, if at all, is the bell mentioned in historical narratives or yearbooks that chronicle Concordia’s past.
As folklore has it, The Victory Bell first resided on the roof of Jesse Hall. A dormitory that housed male students for nearly 50 years, Jesse Hall was erected in 1923. According to accounts from the time, a bell sat atop Jesse’s roof as early as 1945. An article from the April 30, 1997, edition of the Seward County Independent stated that the “victory bell originally hung from Jesse Hall, where it was sounded each morning to awaken the campus community and call students to meals.” From its perch, the bell could be heard, but not seen by onlookers from ground level. This particular bell had seemingly never been intentioned to have anything to do with athletics or to have any type of visible presence at the “College in the Cornfields.”
Such a bell has little purpose in today’s world of smart phones and calendar reminders. On the surface, there was no reason for anyone to think much of it. Such a bell could have easily faded into history, eventually forgotten completely by the passing of time. It was something that probably seemed insignificant to enough people that no one really bothered to document its existence.
If not for the shenanigans of a group of football players, we would likely not be talking about The Victory Bell in 2018. Seevers never rang the bell himself, but he vividly recalls how his teammates would ascend to the roof of Jesse Hall to celebrate triumphs on the gridiron. There wasn’t much cause for celebration during Seevers’ freshman season, a 1-7 campaign for the football team. That record improved to 7-1-1 in 1949. Suddenly, the male dormitory at Jesse Hall was buzzing – or ringing, you might say. It didn’t matter if the team returned from a road trip in the middle of the night. It was time to let the entire campus, and surrounding community, know that the Bulldogs had brought a victory back to Seward. Concordia archivist Jerry Pfabe even remembers the bell ringing for more than 40 minutes straight after a 41-0 thumping of Nebraska Wesleyan in 1967.
We really can’t say with certainty that the teams of the late 1940s were the first to celebrate a win by igniting the sweet sounds of the Jesse Hall bell. We just know it was a special moment shared by teammates of the time. It was special enough that it helped us arrive at where we are today. We also know that there were hurdles yet to be cleared before the ringing of the bell became a firmly entrenched tradition. As evidence and eyewitness accounts show, the bell disappeared from Jesse Hall in the late 1960s. According to Luther Klenke, who provided service to Concordia athletics for more than three decades, the bell was taken down to stop high school students from ringing it late at night. Klenke recalled an incident in which some high school athletes rang the ball all night after winning a football game.
At various times afterwards, Klenke and longtime equipment manager Stan Schlueter aided in rediscovering a campus bell (thought to be the Jesse bell) and fixing it up on a trailer cart. Somehow a group of Concordia students, whose identities were never revealed, attempted to run off with The Victory Bell and cart, a devious act that was believed to have occurred sometime during the 1980s. As they were wheeling it away, they lost control of the cart and it crashed to the bottom of the hill on the east side of campus. The trailer cart crumbled and was destroyed due to the weight of the bell, which Schlueter estimated at around 1,500 pounds.
The Victory Bell made its first documented appearance inside what is now the stadium in 1969. Klenke and the C-Club felt it would add to the game day atmosphere. A yearbook photo from ’69 shows a group of cheerleaders posing around the bell, which was stationed atop a trailer cart not necessarily meant to support an object of such weightiness. Another photo in 1970 depicts a popular student named Jan Fredricksen holding a rope attached to the bell. Additionally, a 1971 photo was taken at the homecoming parade and showcases what the yearbook referred to as the “victory bell wagon.”
Seevers became the head football coach at Concordia in 1970 and held his post until 1976. He has no memory of The Victory Bell being present at games during those years. What happened? It seems The Victory Bell still made its way onto the field throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Klenke remembers watching football teams run to the bell and ring it during this period of history. There just aren’t many documented photos or written accounts about the bell throughout most of the 1970s.
We find no more historical references (yearbooks and news archives) to The Victory Bell until it again shows up in a parade – this time in 1980. Schlueter credits Mike Pomerenke, a 1981 graduate and former Bulldog football player, with pushing for the return of The Victory Bell. At Pomerenke’s urging, Schlueter went to work on making a new and sturdier trailer cart that could haul the massive bell, which still couldn’t seem to find a permanent home. This was despite a 1969 effort to build a visible on-campus bell tower to support it. This obviously never happened. Schlueter believed Pomerenke had worked with the grounds crew on campus and happened to notice the bell sitting uselessly off the beaten path.
Now it’s time to cast doubt upon the long held assumption that the current Victory Bell was formerly the Jesse Hall bell. Despite the claims of many, the idea that The Victory Bell, as we know it today, first called Jesse’s roof its home appears to be a myth. Consider the October 3, 1969, article from Concordia’s The Sower student newspaper that detailed Seward County’s donation to Concordia of a “thousand pound bell that formerly rang from the tower of the Seward County Courthouse.” In a remarkable coincidence, just prior to this donation, Concordia had also completed an extensive renovation of Jesse Hall. Based on the testimony of Klenke, it is apparent that Jesse Hall said goodbye to its bell at this moment in time.
Sitting today in storage in campus Buildings and Grounds is another bell. This one includes the inscriptions “Stuckstede & Bro.” along with the year 1925. The Henry Stuckstede Foundry operated from 1855 to 1962 in St. Louis, Mo. The time period fits with the construction of Jesse Hall. This smaller bell, although still several hundred pounds worth of heft, would seem to have been more practical to have been placed atop the roof of Jesse Hall. We believe this could be appropriately titled, Victory Bell No. 1. Thankfully, it’s still in Concordia’s possession.
This evidence leads us to conclude that the Jesse bell is not the same as The Victory Bell inside Bulldog Stadium today. For one, the inscription on the current Victory Bell reveals its manufacturer, McShane Bell Foundry Co. of Baltimore, Md., and the year it was produced, 1909. It wasn’t until at least 14 years later that Jesse Hall was finally completed. During that time, Victory Bell No. 2 (currently inside the stadium) was likely hanging out atop the Seward County Courthouse, which went into operation in 1907 with a bell tower installed soon after. It all seems to make sense when you find that the first documented photograph of The Victory Bell appearing at a football game – from a 1969 school yearbook – surfaces at nearly the same time as the donation from Seward County.
Upon hearing of this newly acquired bell in 1969, Concordia’s Pep and C Clubs, groups directly related with athletics, took notice. A committee of students began “surveying plans and ideas for a bell tower.” They reasoned that it should be placed near the football field or the campus center. Instead, it sat in “Hillcrest Garage” until being removed in time for display at a football game that fall. Intermittently, The Victory Bell continued to serve as a distinctly Concordia symbol until finally it settled beyond the northwest end zone. It became fixed in that spot in 1997 when the Seward Veterans of Foreign War Post 4755 contributed $1,000 for a flagpole and bell support at Concordia’s new “track, field and stadium complex” in the spring of 1997. In previous years, as reported by The Seward County Independent, the bell “had been used during parades and home football games to celebrate Bulldog touchdowns and victories.”
This initial location of The Victory Bell wasn’t quite ideal for the host Bulldogs, who have sometimes had to scoff at daring opponents who have felt a desire to disgrace the tradition by ringing the bell themselves. In the summer of 2017, The Victory Bell migrated to the northeast corner of the Stadium as part of the colonnade project. At some point in the modern era, Concordia soccer teams joined in on the bell ringing tradition. Built to last, The Victory Bell is still going strong at the tender age of 109 years old.
It’s easy to see why the assumption was made that the bell that appears today inside the stadium had formerly made its home at Jesse Hall. Many people were unaware of the second bell that arrived in 1969, about the same time the Jesse Hall bell was removed and the same year that a bell first appeared on the sidelines of a Concordia football game.
If you have the ability to fill in any gaps on The Victory Bell’s (or bells’) journey, let us know. There are some things we may never know. However, we now can document the existence of multiple large bells on Concordia’s campus. One is sitting in storage while the other is displayed proudly inside Bulldog Stadium. Both are pieces of history that connect our past to our present. The bell that likely once rang out from the courthouse in downtown Seward now proclaims Bulldog victories. All the way from Baltimore it traveled, one can only imagine by train, in the early 1900s. Years later, Jesse Hall became the source of the first Concordia victory celebration involving the ringing of a bell.
Nearly as old as the institution itself, The Victory Bell is uniquely Concordia University, Nebraska.