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George Leggiero keeps 47 Cleveland bells ringing

Posted: 10:15 PM, Apr 29, 2016
Updated: 2016-04-30 02:15:16Z

"When do the bells ring for me," sings the great American singer Tony Bennett.  He is among my favorite singers.  I thought of him when I heard bells ringing in University Circle.  But the bells reverberated not only for me, but for thousands of other people who were within earshot of 47 bells being played at the highest point of Church of the Covenant, an iconic building in the area.

Ringing the bells was George Leggiero, Covenant and University Circle Carillonneur.  At his lofty perch in the tower of the church, Leggiero was on the carillon, an instrument of levers and pedals, each connected by wire to individual bells overhead in the belfry.  Leggiero was in concert on the musical instrument which was installed in 1968, 57 years after the Church of the Covenant building was constructed.   In 1973,  Leggiero was a Case Western Reserve University student living in a residence hall next door.  He could hear the 47 pealing bells of the carillon.  During this time, he heard the church was looking for someone to play.    

"When they needed a Carillonneur, they asked if I was interested and I spent time learning the instrument and practicing," said Leggiero, recalling how he could hear the music of the bells from his Case Western Reserve University residence hall which was next door to the church.

Although the carillon is in Church of the Covenant, the instrument is its own non-profit organization, Friends of the McGaffin Carillon in University Circle, Inc., raises money for the carillon which is named in memory of the Reverend Alexander McGaffin, who was one of the early pastors of Church of the Covenant.

The church building was constructed in 1911.  It has been an iconic landmark in University Circle for generations.  The music of the bells can be heard for several blocks in all directions.  Easily, the bells can be heard across Euclid Avenue at University Hospitals. 

"We do get stories from people who have heard the bells and they say it ias helped them while they're at the hospital," said Leggiero.  "They heard the church calling them from a distance."

Leggiero not only serves as the maker of the music, he also serves as mechanic on the carillon and its 15,000 pounds of bronze bells.  Easily, after walking about fifty steps of a spiral staircase, he climbs the steps of a ladder which is anchored to the side of the bell tower.  After climbing about 18 rungs of the ladder hanging on the wall, he opens an overhead hatch and pushes himself through to the place where the bronze bells hang.

If there are repairs to be made on the several dozen wires running from the carillon keyboard downstairs to the bells anchored upstairs, he makes the adjustments.  "Today, one of these little wires broke, so before Friday's program, I'll be up here repairing this," he said, fingering a piece of broken wire.

Looking up to the highest of the bells, he said he was glad the needed repair could be easily handled.  If he had to climb even higher, he said he would do so.   "Today, I don't have to climb all the way to the top," said Leggiero, smiling at the instrument he has played for 42 years.

The belfry is in the open.  Winter's  winds and Summer's stifling heat can make the place uncomfortable, but Leggiero braves his way through concerts throughout the year.  From his high perch, he can easily see the Cleveland downtown skyline five miles away.  He has a view in all directions from the top of Church of the Covenant.

Passersby below walk Euclid Avenue, listening to the music which comes from on high.  Some have said it is as if the music comes from the clouds.  When asked if Leggiero is a recipient of divine touch, Denise Horstman, Church of the Covenant archivist and President of the Friends of the McGaffin Carillon in University Circle Inc., smiled.  "I believe so," she said without hesitation.  "And i think people in Cleveland are beneficiaries of the talent of the player of the carillon."

With that, George Leggiero was making a final touch on one of the wires leading from the keyboard to the bells overhead.  He was preparing for his next concert Friday afternoon at 12:15.

The website of the Friends of the McGaffin Carrillon in University Circle is www.ucbells.org.