by Charles Reed
With how iconic the Henningson Memorial Campanile is to the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus, it’s sometimes easy to forget (or, for others, forget to ask) that the 16-story bell tower isn’t even old enough to graduate at commencement this May.
Since its completion in 1989, the bell tower has been featured prominently in everything from commencement programs to UNO’s centennial celebration. And, in Omaha, it is recognized as a landmark in the same way as the Woodman Tower, the Henry-Doorly Zoo’s Desert Dome or Saint Cecilia Cathedral.
Located at the intersection of the CPACS building, Criss Library and Strauss Performing Arts Center, UNO’s bell tower began construction in 1988 after a proposal was put forth to the Board of Regents in 1987.
Like almost every construction project at UNO during Del Weber’s time as chancellor there were questions about the need for a bell tower on campus. Writing for the Gateway, columnist Tammy Coleman raised concerns that it would congest traffic, potentially remove parking spaces and be loud and Sue Perry just wanted just wanted tomake sure Barry Manilow wasn’t played on the 40-some bells of the tower’s carillon.
Despite these concerns, ground broke on the tower’s foundation in May of 1988 thanks to a donation from Margre Henningson-Durham, who had, with her husband Charles W. Durham, previously donated a large amount of money for the Durham Science Center, of $1 million for the campanile’s construction in memory of her parents, Henning and Rose Henningson, and sister, Helen Henningson-Grimes. The tower would stand at 168 feet and contain 47 bronze bells, weighing a combined 2.5 tons, as well as feature a clock on each of its faces. The music would be provided through an electronic keyboard located inside the Performing Arts Center.
A strike from Kiewit Construction workers in the summer of 1988 threatened to slow down production altogether and managed to push the date for completion back several months to December 1988 instead of October. However, that date was pushed up to Thanksgiving after the 47 bells, shipped from France, arrived at the beginning of November.
However, the bells too caused controversy, albeit an ill-informed one, because supposedly inscriptions of on the bells were too morbid, only featuring memorial thank-yous to members of the Henningson and Durham families and family friends. Instead, the inscriptions were evenly distributed between friends and family of the Durhams and members of the UNO community at large including Chancellor Weber and NU president, and former UNO chancellor, Ronald Roskens.
The construction of the campanile was completed on January 19, 1989 winter break and in May, just over a year after the initial groundbreaking, Margre Henningson-Durham was on hand to publicly dedicate UNO’s newest addition in front of a crowd of about 400 people. In an issue of “UNO Today” from 1989, Henningson-Durham was quoted as saying:
"This campanile is a reflection of my parents’ and sister’s loyalty to this community in so many ways. My sister attended the Municipal University of Omaha; my mother loved music, and my father, although he was born in Iowa, was proud of living in Omaha."
Since its creation and dedication over twenty years ago, the Henningson Memorial Campanile has stood, quite literally, at the center of the UNO campus and has come to provide a central icon which the campus can use to identify itself to not only the Omaha community but to the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world.
But, in a more practical sense, the campanile has provided students with an excelling time-telling device, a source of familiar tunes (like the theme to the “Harry Potter” films), and even a home for those loveable bats that always circle the clock tower after dusk as this April Fools edition of the Gateway can attest to.
Regardless of whether its benefits are practical or symbolic, UNO’s campanile, though young, is an integral part of the university.
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