Anyone who drives into Oxford, Ohio from the East knows the Verlin L. Pulley Tower all too well. The towering carillon is the first sign of Miami University red brick to returning students, parents, professors and visitors as they arrive. On a nice day, drivers with their windows down may be lucky enough to catch a few chimes coming from the Pulley Tower, maybe a few notes of the alma mater.
But students walking past the Pulley Tower’s melodies on Patterson Avenue may not realize there is a man behind the music.
Professor Randy Runyon has taught in the French department at Miami for 35 years-long before the Pulley Tower even existed. But when the Pulley Tower was built in 2001, he claimed the role of University Carillonneur, and took on the task of making the bells of the tower sing.
The Pulley Tower was a gift from Miami alumnus William W. Pulley, in tribute to his father, Verlin L. Pulley, who was 1925 graduate from Miami, a former mayor of Oxford, founder of one of the largest dry-cleaning companies in the United States and a member of Miami’s board of trustees.
The 65-year old took the job because he had background in music-playing the piano and organ in church-but he didn’t have to fight off many other applicants.
“I got the job, such as it is, because no one else wanted to do it,” Runyon said.
Nevertheless James Lentini, dean of the School of Creative Arts, said Runyon has played an important role in the Pulley Tower’s success.
“He’s been a tireless advocate for the music played there and with the carillon, and really cares about the instrument and the programming of the music,” Lentini said.
The Pulley Tower plays for 10 minutes about eight times per day, but many of the songs that are heard were recorded by Runyon 10 years ago, programmed on old memory cards to play automatically, and Runyon has to change the memory card every couple weeks or so.
But while many of the recordings were done a decade ago, Runyon will still find new or popular songs, and either play them live or record them for the tower.
Take for example, the pop sensation song of the summer, “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepson. Runyon said he transcribed the music himself after listening for several hours on YouTube.
Students also have the ability to go online and request songs they wish to hear played from the Pulley Tower. “Call Me Maybe” was one Runyon transcribed before it was even requested, expecting the popular song to be one of demand.
But the carillonneur can’t meet every request, he said.
“I get a lot of requests that I cannot fulfill because it’s too strange,” he said, laughing. “Like a rap song, because there really is not enough melodic content.”
But those strange requests haven’t stopped Runyon from tackling other popular songs of the times, noting “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry, “Friday” by Rebecca Black and even the autotuned YouTube sensation “Bed Intruder Song” as some of his favorites to play.
While Runyon said he doubts many students realize there is a person behind the music they hear on their walk to class, Aaron Pittenger is one student who knows Runyon’s role as carillonneur well.
The senior electrical engineering major went to Pulley Tower to record the bells as part of an audio class he took two years ago. He enjoyed the experience so much that went back time and time again to hear Runyon play carillon concerts on the weekends.
“I was there so much he eventually offered to let me play some,” Pittenger said.
When it came time for Pittenger to develop his senior project for his major, he decided to revamp the bell system by using reverse engineering to rebuild the carillon’s technology.
Runyon said he decided to divert his carillonneur salary for the year to Pittenger’s project.
Through working closely with Runyon on the Pulley Tower carillon, Pittenger said he has developed sincere admiration for Runyon.
“He told me that he’ll actually sit down for a day and spend four or five hours just listening to the YouTube video, writing the music off the YouTube video for the Tower, and I just think that’s such an amazing thing to be able to do that,” Pittenger said.
Runyon used to play live concerts on the Pulley Tower carillon nearly every Sunday afternoon, but he said he doesn’t do that as much now.
“I’ve been a little disappointed that when I’ve hung the [concert] sign up and played I haven’t seen anyone here,” Runyon said. “So I thought ‘well what’s the point?'”
Lentini said it can be easy for the university community to hear the Pulley Tower carillon without giving it much thought.
“It’s one of those things that you can take for granted very easily,” Lentini said. “I think probably most people wouldn’t know that somebody’s really paying attention to [the tower] or maybe even out there playing.”
Pittenger said every Miamian should appreciate the Pulley Tower bells, and make an effort to hear one of Runyon’s concerts.
“Even if you don’t come every week, if you come a couple times it’s just kind of fun to sit out there on a nice day, and you can hear songs on the bells, just, it’s kind of a nice environment,” Pittenger said. “I think it’s something people should experience and kind of appreciate.”