A Legacy at Pumphandle

Centennial Bell Ringer Kicks Off 175th Celebration

October 18, 2011

Robert Pennington '49 rings the Old Main bell.

By Christopher Poore

It's not just any man that can say he's had a protracted relationship with a bell -- but Robert Pennington '49 is not just any man, since he's been alive for much of Knox College's 175 year history.

Pennington first rang the Knox bell in 1937 during the College's centennial celebrations. "I think it was after a football game," recalled Pennington. "I must have been between nine and 11. I pulled on the rope, and, of course, as the bell came back, it pulled me right off the ground. My dad caught me."

Robert Pennington '49 and his grandson, Robert Cassens, a current Knox student.But a lot has changed in 75 years, and when Pennington rang Old Main's bell on October 14, officially beginning the Community Pumphandle, all he had to do was press a button.

"Modernism is here," Pennington said, "and nobody can deny it."

Pennington was joined by his grandson, senior Robert Cassens, as he listened to the bell ring for a full minute.

The event seemed to have as much to do with a family legacy as it did with College history. After all, Pennington lived a childhood whose gravitational center was Knox, where his father J. Wilson Pennington served as the College's auditor for 32 years. At four, Pennington began attending sporting events, and by his early adolescence, he was taking art classes at the school. Following a tour as an infantryman in Italy during World War II, Pennington returned to Knox to study art. The legacy continues with Cassens, a creative writing major who said that sharing an alma mater has brought him and his grandfather closer together.

"I didn't even know he went here when I got accepted to Knox," said Cassens. "I didn't hear any of these stories or even know that he went to Knox until after I was already accepted."

It was Cassens' idea to have his grandfather ring the bell and thereby kickstart Knox's Homecoming Weekend, which saw more than 1,100 alumni return to celebrate the College's 175th year.

"Bobby [Cassens] approached me a couple of weeks ago and told me the story of his grandfather," said Director of Alumni Programs Carol Brown '99, who planned the bell ringing ceremony. "Bobby wondered if there was a way we could help his grandfather relive this wonderful memory."

Cassens said that Pennington has a fondness for recollection. Whenever Pennington returns to Galesburg, he's always eager to tell stories about his own student days and point out the many shifts in architecture and culture.

"It's kind of eerie sometimes," said Cassens. "Then sometimes it also has an aura around it of tradition, of being a part of something larger than yourself, of being able to carry on the traditions. It's a major excitement."

"History just goes on and on," Pennington said as he descended the Old Main stairs after the ceremony. "There's so many things about this whole area. I love this place. This place is very sentimental to me."