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Apr 11 2011

The Memorial Bell Tower and the Strange Case of “George Jefferson”

Early Construction of Memorial Bell Tower, 1924

Contributed by Josh Hager

The Memorial Tower, or the Belltower in today’s parlance, has its history in the legacy of the First World War.  State College lost approximately thirty of its alumni in fighting along the Western Front, which inspired a grassroots campaign amongst surviving alumni to construct a monument in memory of their fallen classmates.  In conjunction with the college administration, the alumni formed a Memorial Committee to oversee the project.  Letters sent to all alumni asked for donations and ideas.  Most alumni gave monetarily; some of the ideas offered were equally generous, including detailed plans for an entrance arch to campus, a statue, and an estate with the number of windows equaling the number of war dead.  Due to the combination of relatively little expense and the potential to create a centerpiece of campus in honor of the deceased veterans, the Memorial Committee settled on a tower.  However, the tower did not arise all at once; rather, due to intermittent funding, the college constructed the tower in several phases from 1921 through 1937, when help from the Works Progress Administration finally completed the tower.

Throughout the entire construction process the fact that the tower was  a memorial remained the focal point of the project.  Builders installed a room at the base of the tower and included various artifacts relevant to the veterans; subsequently the builders sealed the room with a brass door that visitors see today.  In addition, to ensure that the Tower would perpetually honor those who inspired its construction, the alumni added a plaque that included the names of the fallen soldiers.

However, a happy twist of fate created something of a snafu with the memorial plaque.  Included on the plaque was a veteran named George Jeffers.   The designers of the plaque, along with Jeffers’s family, believed that Jeffers had died due to severe combat wounds.  Fortunately, while Jeffers did receive severe wounds during fighting at the front, he recovered, making the reports of his death somewhat premature.  News of Jeffers’s recovery came to Raleigh after the finalization of the memorial plaque.  Therefore, through a set of unlikely circumstances, the Tower commemorated the death of a man who was, in point of fact, very much alive.

Yet a visitor to the Belltower today will not encounter George Jeffers when she reads the memorial plaque, even though today’s plaque is the same one that the alumni originally installed on the Tower.  Furthermore, the Memorial Committee did not retroactively attempt to remove Jeffers from the plaque—the difficulty of such a task without ruining the rest of the plaque presented too great a monetary risk.  How, then, did Jeffers disappear from the plaque?  Actually, he never did.  Look closely at the plaque and one finds “George Jefferson.”  The cheapest solution to the Jeffers problem, and the solution that would damage the look and solemnity of the plaque the least, was to add two letters to Jeffers and make it Jefferson.  No “George Jefferson” from North Carolina State College died in the war, so in a sense one of the honored dead on the Belltower is a fake, but this “fix” is certainly preferable to perpetuating the view that a living alumnus and veteran passed away in the war.  We encourage visitors to the Tower to try to find George Jefferson on the plaque—because now you know why a man who never existed is engraved forever on the side of NCSU’s most famous landmark.

For more information on the history of NCSU, please visit our website at http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/specialcollections.

For more images like the one above, visit Historical State at http://historicalstate.lib.ncsu.edu