Thick layers of signatures dating back to the late 19th century coat the crumbling walls of Blanchard Hall’s bell tower, and a lone blue rope dangles from the bell, hidden by musty wooden beams and a poster-coated ceiling. Photos of couples, embroidered love poems, empty bottles of sparkling cider and a few signed animal pelts graffiti the small space. Tradition and Wheaton College lore is thick in the air, reserved only for a special few every year: the Ring by Spring couples.
“Ring by Spring,” a common phrase at Christian colleges and universities across the U.S., refers to the phenomenon of college students getting engaged during their final spring semester. But at Wheaton College, Ring by Spring is more than just a sparkly rock – it entails decades of college tradition for the lucky couple, a chance to ring the bell in Blanchard Hall’s tower 21 times, in three sets of seven. The bell’s ringing is a familiar sound to many Wheaton community members, piercing an otherwise quiet campus to announce a new engagement or marriage.
Ringing the bell is a tradition closely guarded by Public Safety – four flights of stairs, two locked doors, and proof of engagement bar the Bell Tower from the broader campus community. The tower is strictly reserved for newly engaged or married couples, with a few exceptions for College Union, Diakonoi campus tour guides and Orientation Committee.
Before the bell tower tolled for engagements and weddings, it rang at least five times a day to signify times for breakfast, chapel, classes, and sleep. No one is certain exactly when the bell “shifted its emphasis from the academic to the more interesting,” in the words of former President V. Raymond Edman. One of the earliest mentions of the bell’s change in significance, however, was in a Record article on Aug. 15, 1948 by Nick Kalivoda ‘49.
“Especially in the springtime does the tower reverberate as blissful lovers pull the rope to announce their intention to commit matrimony,” Kalivoda noted.
Over the years, the bell tower has been the setting for a decoupage history of couples who found love while at Wheaton. A formal record of those engagements remains with the Student Engagement Office, which helps bell-ringers coordinate their timing and receive access to the bell tower.
According to bell-ringer logs since 2009, students rang the bell for engagements 182 times in the spring, almost twice as often than in the fall. The bell isn’t necessarily for current students – since 2014, 47 spring couples rang as alumni and 84 as current students. Alumni have the opportunity to ring the bell to celebrate recent engagements or weddings even after they graduate as they return to campus for events like Homecoming and Family Weekend.
Despite a global decline in marriages, the rates of engagements at Wheaton have largely remained unchanged in the past decade. On average, between 20 and 30 pairs of Wheaton students get engaged on Wheaton’s campus every year, according to the Student Engagement Office.
For many students, getting engaged in the spring allows for a convenient celebration with friends and family who gather for graduation. Other students choose to get engaged in the fall to get married closer to graduation in the spring or summer.
Recently engaged students Jediah Giller and Skylar Bartman were familiar with Ring by Spring, but not for why you might think – they actually poked fun at the whole concept when they got to Wheaton.
“I did not expect to get married right out of college,” said Bartman, a senior music major with elective studies in Bible and theology. “I laughed about the tradition when I was a freshman. I kind of dismissed it and I laughed about it and I made fun of it. And now I’m like, ‘Well, that’s me.’”
Giller comes from a legacy of Ring by Spring-ers, as both his grandparents and parents met their spouses at Wheaton. He said he also knew about the tradition when he started Wheaton, and his parents didn’t let him forget either.
“My parents figured I’d find somebody here, or at least somebody would find me here,” he said. “And when I introduced Skylar to them, they talked to me afterwards and were like, ‘I think she’s going to be sticking around for a very long time,’” Giller said.
Kelly Brady ‘91, met his spouse, Sherri ‘91, in a music history class. Both of them came from homes with divorced parents, Kelly said, so the relationship began slowly out of caution.
“Rather than pay attention in class, we flirted — in the best sense of the word,” said Kelly.
Finding a wife wasn’t a priority for Kelly, who spent his first two years at Wheaton processing his life at home. Although neither he nor Sherri had planned to date seriously in college, sparks flew in the back row of music history. After dating junior and senior year, Brady popped the question in the same classroom where they met.
“I had told all my buddies and her friends that I was going to do this, and they were waiting for us in Blanchard,” said Kelly. “We had a cake and went up to the bell tower, wrote our names on the wall, we did ring the bell that same night.”
Like Giller and Bartman, Kelly said he had no expectations of marriage out of college — and thinks most students shouldn’t.
“There’s no reason to rush,” he said. “You know, if it all works out you’ll get a ring by spring. But if it takes a year or two after graduation, what’s the hurry? Lord willing, you’ll be married for a lifetime. And that’s a long time.”
Bartman said Ring by Spring often makes sense for the couple who has prayed about their future and feel ready to be engaged. She said that Ring by Spring isn’t the right next step for everyone.
“But I think it makes sense for us with where we’re at, where we want to go,” she said.
Kelvin and Polly Schill ‘93 met in their first semester at Wheaton in a writing class. The two math majors quickly bonded when Polly noticed Kelvin had Bible verse cards tucked into his notebook. She said she immediately thought Kelvin seemed like a man she wanted to get to know.
“Sophomore year, by Christmas, we knew we were going to get married,” Polly said.
For the Schills, it made sense to marry upon graduating. Polly was from Baltimore and Kelvin from Phoenix, and they didn’t want to date long-distance.
“I think when you find the person you know you’re going to marry, there’s no sense in waiting,” Polly said. “And just for purity sake, you want to get married.”
Kelvin and Polly agreed that the Ring by Spring term can put undue pressure on students to feel like they have to settle or rush into marriage. For them, the decision to marry was practical.
“That kind of annoys me, that ‘Ring by Spring’ thing,” Polly said. “I don’t feel like we got married because of that,” Polly said.
Love it or hate it, Ring by Spring seems here to stay. Take a look at the charts below for a closer look at the numbers behind ringing the bell.
Seungju Kim is a senior psychology major. He is a guest contributor to the Record.