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Longtime player of UT Tower’s bells dies at 93

High up on the University of Texas Tower, above the clock and the observation deck, is a musical instrument known as the Kniker Carillon that Tom Anderson played for the better part of 61 years.

Anderson was a master of the Rube Goldberg contraption consisting of a keyboard, pedals, levers, wires and other components connected to 56 bronze bells ranging in weight from 20 pounds to 7,385 pounds.

For decades, he played three times a week at 12:50 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday — solemn tunes, like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” after four students at Kent State University were killed by the Ohio National Guard in 1970, and silly selections, like “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” on steamy summer days.

Anderson, 93, died Aug. 18 at Stonebriar Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in South Austin. The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease and hip surgery, said his son, Eric. Burial was in Austin Memorial Park Cemetery. There will be a memorial service at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 18 at First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity St.

Anderson found his passion as a carillonneur while a student at the University of Texas, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. The carillon is the Big Bertha of keyboard instruments — large, heavy and loud. It dates to the 1600s in Western Europe.

UT’s carillon is the largest in Texas, according to the World Carillon Federation’s website. To play it well, a carillonneur must throw his whole being into the task. The clappers inside the bells — the bells don’t move — are activated by using fists to strike a series of wooden pegs called batons that are the instrument’s equivalent of piano keys. Foot pedals sound lower notes. Anderson once told the American-Statesman that playing gave him “a feeling of being the bell.”

He played from 1952 until 1956 while a graduate student. In 1967, a year after he returned to UT to work in the international office, where he was assistant director, UT President Harry Ransom asked him to serve as carillonneur, and he continued to play until about three years ago. UT President Bill Powers awarded him a presidential citation in 2010.

“He used to take me up into the Tower to the carillon when I was a kid,” said Eric Anderson. “We’d go up a staircase that angles up several flights through the clockworks. It’s like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie ‘The 39 Steps.’”

Donna Bellinghausen, UT associate vice president for student affairs, dealt with Anderson in various capacities over the years and remembers him as “a very kind person” devoted to his music and fussy about maintaining his arrangements in a filing cabinet.

“He did have a quirky sense of humor,” Bellinghausen said. “I remember him playing ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ whether we were in drought or it was pouring outside.”

In 1987, after a bequest from an alumna, Hedwig Thusnelda Kniker, expanded the 17-bell instrument to 56 bells, Anderson tested its tuning with Bach’s Minuet No. 1. “He played everything,” Bellinghausen said.

Thomas Wynn Anderson was born Feb. 1, 1923, in Nocona, a small town in North Texas, but he grew up in Austin. He served in the Navy during World War II and in the Army Reserves for many years afterward, retiring at the rank of colonel.

He is survived by a brother, Kenneth of Houston; a daughter, Jean Escalona of Austin; two sons, James of Shenandoah and Eric of Driftwood; two granddaughters; and one great-grandson.

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