Chapter 38 — The No Bell Prize

February 9, 2012

The Ecumenical Handbell Choir returned from Kansas City on Wednesday, where they placed second in the “Under 100 Church Members” category of the North American Bell Choir Competition. Congratulations to conductor Arlene Cornett and all the members from St. Stephen’s, St. Brendan’s and the 1st Baptist Church for a job well-done.

Taking advantage of the mild February weather, Sherri Browne and Connie Thompson drove to Overland Park on Monday to visit Sherri’s sister, Violet Sparks. They had lunch Johnny Cascone’s and then went to Half Price Books. Connie was looking for another copy of “The Paris Wife” to replace the one she left the airplane when she and Ralph flew to Denver to attend Ralph’s niece’s wedding.

Pastor Paul Powers is about to complete his Master of Divinity degree from the Midwest Theological Seminary. His Master’s thesis is an exploration of the symbolism of Jesus turning water to wine.

Speaking of wine, George Finley says that a recent inspection of his vines show that they are coming through the winter just fine. He’s hoping for a good growing season. As are we all!

Dorothy Westover reports that the proofs of the 100th Anniversary Erin Go Bragh Cookbook have been returned to the publisher and everything is on schedule for the unveiling at the St.Patrick’s Day dinner.

Curt and Amanda Jackson went to Topeka Sunday afternoon to see We Bought a Zoo. Curt said it was definitely not research for a new business. “Deliveries have been a bit slow lately, but tax time is heating up, so Amanda is going to be bringing home most of the bacon for the next couple of months,” Curt said. Ah, yes, tax time.

Sandy Cramer says that she got an email from John, Jr., who is in Santa Cruz, California, attending the University of California. The semester started a month ago on January 9, and Sandy reports that John, Jr. is off to a fast start, with eight hours in astrophysics and four in robotics. “He’s also taking water polo and lacrosse, if you can imagine that. He’s into California culture.”

Alvin Begley spent Sunday doing some work at the VFW hall. Marj said he was trying to shake off KU’s loss to Mizzou on Saturday night.

Hal Dane, who defended his dissertation on the Oregon Trail and graduated in December from KU, has been hired by the Durham Museum in Omaha to increase its research related to overland travel, especially in the years 1840 to 1870.

Roxie, Pat and Alice McManus, puppy who is now a year old, worked very hard to become a therapy dog and she is now visiting Walnut Rest and Miller County General on a regular basis. I hear she likes to be there when Mahjong is being played. Somehow, extra treats are involved those days.

Rusty Higgs was in town over the weekend. He dropped off samples of his salt that changes colors after it’s added to food at Bach’s Lunch, Shirley’s and the Stop and Go.

Harry Singleton and Jason Glen had lunch with Tom and Michelle Clemons on Sunday after church. They are working with Sally Oswald on the new brochure for the Main Street/Pride committee.

Craig Duffy is testing ice cream flavors again. He admits that his Margaritaville flavor didn’t get the reception he thought it would, but Walnut, Walnut, Walnut was a big hit at Shirley’s. The patrons of Bach’s Lunch were partial to the Meyer Lemon Sorbet, but they have refined palates, as we all know.

For me, I’ll take plain old chocolate any day of the week and until my next bowl…

I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Every year during the week of February 5, the North American Bell Choir Competition is held in Kansas City at St. Agatha’s Catholic Church. February 5th is the historical date of St. Agatha’s martyrdom. She’s the patron saint of bells (also other martyrs, wet nurses, breast cancer patients, bell-founders, bakers, fire, earthquakes, and the eruptions of Mount Etna; some years, she’s a lot busier than others, especially in California). The competition has been held every year since 1951, the 1700th anniversary of her death, though it’s only been in Kansas City since 2001. Before that it was located in Chicago, but there were several years that it had to be delayed because of weather issues. Chicago is a bit “iffier” than Kansas City at the beginning of February.

Walnut Shade has had a choir in the competition from the beginning. In the early years, it was made up of just members of St. Brendan’s, but as time went on, there were fewer members there and to supplement the choir, several people from St. Stephen’s UCC and the 1st Baptist Church were recruited. Eventually, it became known as the Ecumenical Handbell Choir of Walnut Shade and over the years, it has made quite a name for itself, no more so than in 1986 when it was awarded what has come to be known in the NABCC as the “No Bell Prize.” Here’s the story.

The winter of 1986 started out as a typical winter in the Midwest. There were periods of extremely cold, snowy weeks, followed by thaws and dry spells. Around Martin Luther King Day, a massive storm hit the upper Plains, closing down most everything for a couple of weeks. Walnut Shade received just over fourteen inches of wet, heavy snow during that time, making it very difficult for the choir to get together to practice, though they had been diligent about it beforehand, so no one was particularly concerned about missing a few days. Two weeks before the competition was scheduled to begin, another thaw arrived and the forecast was for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation until the middle of February. Organizers of the event in Chicago breathed a sigh of relief and Sarah Chapman, the conductor of the Walnut Shade choir, made sure that her charges were ready to perform.

The competition was scheduled to commence on Wednesday morning, February 5, with the various categories of choirs performing for judges in venues close to Holy Name Cathedral, where the final performances of category winners would be held on Friday evening. On Monday, February 3, the choir members boarded a chartered bus to head to Chicago. Normally, in addition to the luggage for  a week for twelve member, there would be three cases filled with music, handbells, and all the accouterments necessary for a special musical performance. Somehow, the cases with these essential components were never loaded on the bus. You know how it is: trying to make sure that everything is accounted for at the last minute inevitably leads to something not being accounted for.

It was not until Sarah Chapman was helping choir members check into their rooms in the Warwick Hotel that evening that she discovered that the bell cases were missing. A second check of the bus turned up nothing and so Sarah called her husband back in Walnut Shade. Harry, Sarah’s husband, drove over to St. Brendan’s, where the choir had assembled to leave for Chicago, and sure enough, there in the vestibule were the bell cases, along with a piece of luggage that one of the member had also left behind. Harry agreed to start out the next morning to deliver the precious cargo by car. The worst that would happen was a loss of a day of rehearsal, but Sarah was confident that that would not affect the choir’s performance. They were prepared!

Bright and early, Tuesday, February 4, Harry Chapman loaded his 1982 Ford Escort with the three cases of bells, music, etc. and started off for Chicago, not having listened to the weather forecast. By the time he got to Des Moines, it had begun to snow and when he reached Iowa City, the roads were beginning to be snow-covered. It seems that a freak winter storm had developed over southern South Dakota and northern Nebraska and then had moved with a vengeance into Iowa. Harry got as far as Davenport and could go no farther. He called Sarah to give her the news.

Now, anyone who knows handbell choirs knows that the instruments they play are very special pieces of metal, leather and wood. Whether you are a Schulmerich or a Malmark aficionado, you swear that your bells make the difference in a performance. The EHC happens to be players of Malmarks, having switched to them in 1975 when Sarah Chapman was invited to visit Jake Malta’s workshop in Bucks County, PA. Malta was just getting started in the “bell trade,” as it is known, and he was trying to market his new bells to choirs that had been winners in the NABCC, as the Walnut Shade group had been the year before. Sarah had seen his bells demonstrated at one of the workshops that occur as part of the competition/convention. She was intrigued by the concept of a “tangless” bell and the somewhat softer sound it made, but wasn’t convinced at that time. But Malta offered a free trip to Pennsylvania, so how could she decline?

Sarah and Harry decided to drive and they made a vacation of it, stopping in Indianapolis to see Sarah’s grandmother and in Dayton to visit the Air Force Museum. Ironically, though he was afraid to fly, Harry was an avid model airplane builder, having won prizes for this planes in shows across the Midwest. The Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has one of the major collections of scale model airplane, so Harry was excited to visit it again.

After a leisurely drive over the course of three days, the Chapmans arrived in Doylestown, PA and met Jake Malta as his workshop. At the time, he was still working out of a small storefront in town, but had a production system that could turn out two full sets of 25 bells a week. Sarah was so impressed with the sound and quality of Malta’s handbells that she was determined to convince the choir back home to make a switch, which necessitated a major fund-raising drive in Walnut Shade.

Now in addition to being an excellent director, Sarah was also a persistent salesperson when it came to making sure her choir had what it needed, so within a month of returning home, she had raised the $2,200 to buy the set. To say that the choir members were thrilled is an understatement. They had loved the handbells they had used for decades, but there is always something special about getting something new. You could see the joy on their faced at their first performance with the new bells.

Well, that’s a bit of digression from the main story…

So, Harry was stuck in Davenport and wouldn’t be able to make it to Chicago for the start of the competition on Wednesday. In fact, it was doubtful that he would be able to make it by then end of the week. Sarah was crestfallen. What would she tell the choir? While she was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, looking despondent, Grace Hartigan, the director of the Williamsburg UCC Church choir in Oak Park, stopped to chat and saw Sarah’s distress. Over the years, Sarah and Grace had become good friends and friendly, if fierce competitors in the NABCC competition.

“Sarah, if you want to borrow our bells when your are ready to perform, we’d be happy to loan them to you,” Grace offered. “I know it won’t be the same, but at least you won’t have to drop out. You just have to promise not to win, right?”

At first, Sarah was hesitant, but she said, “Grace, that is a wonderful offer. Let me talk it over with the choir and I’ll let you know. You are a true friend.”

One of the reasons Sarah was a bit reluctant to perform with Grace’s choir’s bells was that they were Schulmerichs, not EHC’s beloved old Malmarks. The difference in sound would, of course, affect the performance. When Sarah talked to the choir members, their reaction was unanimous.

“What do we  have to lose? We’ve come this far and we know the music forwards and backwards,” Andrea Evans said.

“Give us five minutes and we’ll have those bells down pat,” Olivia Jane Johnson chimed in.

“Let’s go for it,” Glenn Miller agreed.

So, that being settled, Sarah talked to Grace and the offer was accepted. The choir was able to get in one short practice before the performances began, but that was enough. And while they didn’t win, they did manage to get a special award. It seems that the news of their bells being delayed and the necessity of their performing with borrowed bells had spread through the other choirs. Not surprisingly, these groups are pretty close and when misfortune falls to one choir, the others commiserate and help however they can.

At the closing banquet, at which competition winners are announced and celebrated, the president of NABCC, Harriet Morrissey, asked Sarah Chapman to come to the stage.

“Sarah, we know that this has been a difficult week for you and your choir and I’m not sure how most of us would have risen to the occasion the way you have. In recognition of your perseverance in the face of the obstacles you encountered, we have created a new award in your honor. Ladies and gentlemen, to Sarah Chapman and the Ecumenical Handbell Choir of Walnut Shade, Kansas, we present the “No Bell Prize.”

At that moment, Harry appeared on the stage beside President Morrissey and hugged Sarah, to thunderous applause from the combined handbells choirs of the NABCC.

Sarah retired the next year, saying that the pinnacle of her career had been reached, winning the “No Bell Prize.”


Here’s a little tidbit from Ledger in times past:

May 21, 1938 — A Miller County Sheriff’s Deputy was called to the home of Horace Crockett of rural Parkersburg on Thursday. A neighbor reported seeing a body in a hammock in Mr. Crockett’s back yard. The body turned out to be a mannequin that had been stolen from the Parkersburg Mercantile sometime in the previous week. Agnes Reed, who called the authorities, said she hadn’t seen Mr. Crockett since the beginning of March. After a short investigation, Mr. Crockett was reached in Wichita where he had been visiting his sister. He was relieved to learn that his hammock was not damaged.

About stclairc

Abstract artist, photographer, writer
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