Try, Try Again

In Response to: University History

1972 Nassau HeraldDuring Freshman Week in 1968, I tried no fewer than 10 times to steal the clapper from the Nassau Hall bell tower. By my ninth failure, the proctors and I were on a first-name basis. 

My first effort involved my taking a guitar-case worth of tools to Nassau Hall. The proctors promptly confiscated them. Most of my subsequent efforts ended similarly, with the proctors catching me in the process of “breaking and entering” Nassau Hall. 

Eventually, however, I was able to evade the proctors long enough to actually enter the building — only to find that the bell tower was locked. So I did what any creative Princetonian would do.

I jimmied the lock to the janitor’s closet and was about to use the only key on the janitor’s keychain to unlock the bell tower door — when the proctors caught me yet again. Just before being captured, however, I pocketed the key for future use. 

Once released from the custody of the proctors’ office, I took the key to a local locksmith and asked him to reproduce it for me. For some reason, he was deterred by the words on the key:


He was not persuaded even by my impromptu lame explanation that the message meant merely that no one was to reproduce Princeton University. 

Undeterred, I returned to the scene of the crime, now for the ninth time. I broke and entered yet again. I tried to unlock the bell-tower door with the purloined key. It was the wrong key. 

Again undeterred, I entered the office of someone whose window was closest to the portion of the roof nearest the tower. I opened the window and was ready to grab onto the gutter and pull myself up to the roof. Then I realized that there was in fact no gutter to grab onto. In fact, the closest one would require a 10-foot jump from a third-floor window. I did not jump. Following a string of profanities that would make a sailor blush, I scurried downstairs and out the first-floor window through which I had entered. 

I was ready to give up. But then I ran across a group of eight or so other freshmen who were also trying to steal the clapper. Collectively, they had assembled a set of tools and had among them one person with climbing experience. But they were lacking access to the building and the roof. These I could provide. So we all agreed that we would pool our knowledge and tools to get the one climber to the bell tower and that, were he successful, we would all share in the glory of being clapper stealers.

We succeeded in getting him into the building, up to the third floor, onto the roof (though I don’t recall how he did it), and into the bell tower — all without apprehension by the proctors. We were ecstatic, as I’m sure he was. Then he pulled out his tools, only to find that he had the wrong-sized wrench to remove the clapper. So he did what any creative Princetonian would do — he disassembled the bell-ringing mechanism.

Once back on terra firma, he distributed to each of us a memento of our collective triumph: a screw from the bell-ringing mechanism. The screw is now mounted in transparent plastic and serves as a paperweight on my desk, as it has for the last half-century.

I was thus able to duplicate, at least in some minor respect, my father’s accomplishment in 1939 — stealing the actual clapper. Crime runs in the family.

Photo: 1972 Nassau Herald

Editor’s note: Read an entertaining look back at Princeton’s most famous undergraduate caper — the tale of Joseph D. Oznot ’68.

Roland Frye ’72
Alexandria, Va.