By Gretchen Kell
The Campanile is the most distinctive building of the Berkeley skyline. It turns 100 this year and in honor of its anniversary, UC Berkeley has been holding special events. Gretchen Kell, who writes for UC’s NewsService, interviewed the woman at the top of the tower.
If you’ve ever taken an elevator ride in the Jane K. Sather Campanile, you’ve probably met Lilyanne Clark. “I spend four hours in the elevator a day,” she says, matter-of-factly, “and on busy days, I can make 10 to 15 round trips an hour.” That’s up to 60 round trips daily. It’s a question she thinks she’s answered nearly as many times.
There are other questions Clark prefers to answer. Having worked at the Campanile since 1993, she enjoys sharing her colorful experiences as the tower’s keeper and as a Visitor Services staffer who helps show the public this iconic Bay Area treasure. Last year, more than 100,000 people took a tour, and the crowds grow annually.
NewsCenter: When did you first visit the Campanile?
Clark: I was admitted to Berkeley as a transfer student in 1968, and I’d never been on the campus until the day I registered. The first thing I heard was the bells, and I had to find them. When I saw the Campanile, I felt I’d arrived at the ivory tower. I’d always imagined that a great school would have a tower with bells.
My first ride in the Campanile was in 1969. A friend and I went to the top, and the next thing I knew, a little lady who turned out to be Margaret Murdock, who played the bells for about 60 years, said to us, “You’re welcome to stay, but I’m going to play, and it’s horribly loud.” As a result, we actually went back down the stairs and left!
At the time, I had no idea that years later, when I was in my 40s, I would be working there.
What do you like best about your job?
I enjoy talking with visitors from all around the world about why they’re on campus. There was a group of Brits from many parts of England, for example, who were here for a Gilbert and Sullivan festival at Zellerbach Hall, and they sang some of their numbers to me in the elevator. My favorite guests were actors Ted Danson and his wife, Mary Steenburgen. They had three girls with them – their daughter, who was looking at colleges, and her two friends — who asked what was in the tower. Wesley Snipes also came to the Campanile with a few other actors. They were in the Bay Area filming a movie.
I assist with marriage proposals, helping prospective bridegrooms who want to pop the question on the observation deck. I sometimes even help with weddings. I get a kick out of it. It adds something to my day and ranks up there quite highly for me. The most elaborate proposal I helped with was by an alumnus who lived in Los Angeles and returned to the Bay Area with his girlfriend. He sent her on a shopping spree in a limousine to buy gifts, supposedly for her mother’s birthday party in Kensington, but actually they were gifts for her – plus a big ring – when the driver dropped her off at the tower.
If I worked in a grocery store, how many people would tell me, “We want to get married in the vegetable section. Can you help?” The tower is special.
And the toughest parts of the job?
People ask me questions like, “They pay you to operate the elevator?” and “Is this all you do all day?” If there wasn’t an elevator operator, people would exit on floors where the public isn’t allowed, like the levels where Berkeley fossil collections are kept. There are faculty members and other researchers in North America who need to get out of the elevator to work with the bones, and the university carillonist has an office on a level off limits to visitors.
Then there are guests who don’t respect the tower. I came to work one morning, and the white marble all around the Campanile was oily. It turns out that a street person who was very religious had anointed the tower with oil. A group of young girls on a field trip once threw bottles of water off the observation deck and onto people below. I’ve caught engineering students tossing fancy paper airplanes off the top. I clean lipstick and handprints off the glass panels on the observation deck, and stop kids in the elevator from jumping up and down while it’s moving.
While I’m here in the tower, I’m vigilant. It’s my job to help keep the tower safe, and I want to make sure nothing bad happens.
You’ve also given police eyewitness accounts of pranks?
Yes. A major prank was in 1998 when some non-UC people in their 20s with big backpacks took a ride to the observation deck and then managed to lock the doors so no one else could join them up there. It turns out they were animal rights activists, and one of them dangled off the Campanile in a hammock for eight days. I called the police, who arrested the protesters who were barricaded in the tower, before they could give their friend dangling off the tower any food. I got subpoenaed to be in court for their trial, but I wasn’t needed after all; the men and women pleaded guilty.
Only the Campanile’s lobby and observation deck are open to the public. What’s in the tower that guests can’t see?
People always ask, “What’s in the tower?” on the elevator ride. I tell them that levels 2,3 4 and 5 are part of the UC Museum of Paleontology and contain tons of old animal bones from the La Brea tar pits – animals like saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, giant sloths and wooly mammoths with tusks. There are no dinosaur bones. I tell them that level 6 belongs to University Carillonist Jeff Davis, who trains up to 20 students to play the bells on a keyboard in his office. The students practice their music on the first level, where there are two more keyboards and a music library.
It’s rare that I’m asked how many steps are in the tower, but there are 316, from the ground floor to the observation level. That doesn’t include the circular stairway that takes people even higher, and the ladders that lead to the tower’s lantern.
Are you asked if the Campanile is haunted?
Yes, but I don’t believe it is. I did have a surreal experience once, though, when it was foggy. I walked out of the tower late one night and saw people – couples and groups dressed in black and white, in period costumes, reenacting something historical on the esplanade. I thought I was seeing things! And I once got a call from Skeptic magazine asking about rumors of a disembodied hand that appears on the lawn outside the tower and that people see periodically walking across the grass.
There are noises in the tower that take some getting used to, like the mechanisms that move the clock hands, the sounds of bells coming through the walls from students practicing on the keyboards, the thunk of the transformer that kicks on the night lights. A cashier working in the lobby recently left me a note about a clunking noise that she feared meant a water heater was about to explode. It was just the foot pedals on the practice carillon.
Is there a common reaction visitors have to the amazing view at the top?
A lot of people say they wish they could have the observation deck as their penthouse, enclosed in glass. They even describe where the bed would go.
Does it get claustrophobic, being in the tall, narrow tower all day, and in the elevator?
I don’t have claustrophobia. But I do try to limit the number of people in the elevator to eight to 10.
I’m in my office before the Campanile opens, and sometimes I take the elevator alone up to the observation deck before my shift, and sometimes after my shift, and feel the fresh air. I like to look at the view, whether it’s foggy or clear, and down Telegraph Avenue. After all this time, I feel it’s my tower, that this is my domain.
Support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member. Members enjoy lots of perks, like invitations to member-only events, and an annual party.