Planning, Pride Help Make the Belltower Picture Perfect

The Memorial Belltower on a spring day.

As the calendar flips from April to May, one thing is certain on NC State’s North Campus: From far and wide, graduating students will converge on the university’s most iconic landmark.

They’ll come for a photo, a moment in time marking the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Almost always featuring a cap and gown, these pictures often will include a friend, family member or Wolfpack pet. They are full of wide smiles and bright sunshine, and the grass is always green.

Built to honor NC State alumni killed in World War I, the Memorial Tower, most commonly called the Belltower, has become a symbol of the entire institution.

This hallowed space is where students gather to celebrate big wins, class rings spend the night and the timeless values of the Wolfpack are on display in granite and concrete. Thanks to a transformative gift from the Henry family, it will also include real bells in the near future.

“No matter what your major is or where you took classes, this is the symbol of NC State,” graduate student Madison Sprinkle said recently in between posing for graduation photos.

Julianne Pomnitz, a senior earning her degree in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, agreed, saying the Belltower is a monument to “everything NC State has been and will be.”

“The Belltower itself is just a really great piece of architecture, but the green space around it is what makes it. Between the trees, the lawn, and especially if you have cloudless sky in the bakground, it’s just perfect,” she said.

Year after year, the Belltower is ready for its role in creating memories, thanks in large part to a small army of NC State employees tasked with its care. They are maintenance crews, turf specialists and project managers, and they take pride in their work.

“This is absolutely a labor of love. There is no more important place on campus,” said Jeff Del Pinal, NC State’s grounds program manager.

“We want to see as much foot traffic around the Belltower as possible, and if people get to enjoy the view, then it’s worth the effort.”

The effort goes on throughout the year, following a cycle almost as consistent as graduation itself. Del Pinal says much of the planning involves working backward along a timeline.

If the goal is to have the tower photo setting in top form by late April, multiple projects that make that happen will begin months earlier.

Michael Oakes, a horticultural specialist who oversees Main Campus, chuckles when talking about the degree of work required to keep the university’s most photographed landmark ready for its close-up.

“I think the amount of fertilization and soil testing we do would surprise people. In the middle of winter, we put out ryegrass so the area is nice and green well before Bermuda comes in. We went from mowing the grass really high to really low. We used to mow it once a week. Now it’s three times a week,” he says, running through his mental checklist out loud.

Graduating senior poses at Belltower
Graduating senior Tom Simpson poses at the Memorial Belltower on May 6, 2019. Photo by Becky Kirkland.

Del Pinal spends much of his time setting crews up for success. There are several employees assigned to the area around the Belltower, and they coordinate schedules to ensure maximum efficiency.

“We have a crew that does landscape maintenance. They’ll do pruning, weeding, flower installation and those sorts of things. We have folks that do turf management work, the mowing and that kind of thing,” he said. “Our schedules all end up being task-driven, depending on when we need to have certain projects completed to help the Belltower look its best.”

They take noise restrictions into account, too, so the work is often done at times that won’t bother a student studying in Thompson Hall or a guest trying to complete a restful night of sleep at the Aloft Hotel across Hillsborough Street.

“We want to be leaders in our industry, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. A bunch of effort, coordination and hard work goes into people being able to enjoy this space,” Del Pinal said. “We want to be safe, we want this area to be usable and functional, and we want it to be aesthetically pleasing. If we can capture those three things, we’re doing a pretty good job.”

Oakes takes it further, highlighting NC State’s land-grant tradition and the horticultural research that goes on in Kilgore Hall.

There is a lot of pride in this, and you can see it in our crews. They understand the expectations of what the Belltower is supposed to be.

“NC State is an agricultural school, and we are known for our horticultural research. How will we attract new students if we can’t do our best at the Belltower?” he said. “There is a lot of pride in this, and you can see it in our crews. They understand the expectations of what the Belltower is supposed to be.”

As graduation season reaches its peak, a steady stream of photographers and almost-graduates at the Belltower are all the proof Del Pinal and Oakes need about whether their work has paid off.

“I drove by on a Sunday recently to show my wife, and there were dozens of people out here, some taking photos, some just sitting by the Belltower,” Oakes said.

“What greater compliment can you get than seeing people want to be out here enjoying the scenery? My mother-in-law told me years ago that this was just a school of bricks. It’s really amazing how it’s transformed into what it is today. It’s beautiful.”

Student takes photos at Belltower
A graduating senior poses for a photo at the Memorial Belltower on May 6, 2019. Photo by Becky Kirkland.

This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting the restoration and completion of the Memorial Belltower. Follow the progress of the project and learn more about the history of NC State’s Legend in Stone. 

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