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Ringing in the season

12/14/2013

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

McCRACKEN -- The 150-some people who pack into the pews of United Methodist Church here on Christmas Eve annually are treated to a special music presentation.

Tunes of Christmas classics such as "Silent Night," "Away in a Manger" and "Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem" are played by a 12-member handbell choir.

Even a broken arm didn't keep Sharon Irvin from attending a practice earlier this month, although she won't be able to perform in the choir for a while.

Irvin has participated in the bell choir for more than 25 years, and Arlene Gilbert, director of the bell choir, had to do some improvising when Irvin slipped on ice last month, fell and broke her right arm.

"I moved some people around," Gilbert said of her choir that features ringers on an octave of bass and two octaves of trebles.

Without Irvin, 11 ringers instead of the usual dozen will be in charge of ringing 37 bells on Christmas Eve.

But Gilbert has learned how to make changes in a hurry since starting the bell choir with some youngsters 27 years ago.

Every single one of the current members is related to at least one other member, if not more.

While that makes hanging out with the choir a fun time, "that also gives us a lot of challenges when there's a family emergency," Gilbert said.

Gilbert got started teaching others how to ring handbells after hearing a music teacher in Wichita introducing handbells and chimes at a music education conference in the 1960s when she was teaching at McCracken.

"My mouth was watering. I wanted them for my classroom," said Gilbert, who taught instrumental music in Rush County schools for 36 years, as well as vocal music for several years, before retiring in 1997.

But there was not funding available at the time in the school system, so Gilbert did the next best thing.

She started teaching handbell ringing to youngsters at her church "as a way for them to contribute to our worship service."

An adult choir was formed within the year, and they have been ringing at church and various other functions since. And recently, Gilbert added a chimes choir.

The choir also rings at nursing homes and various Christmas gatherings.

"If we can do it, we ring for just about anything," Gilbert said.

All the bells have been purchased from donations the choir receives for ringing at services such as funerals, for which they all dress in black attire.

"When we're trying to impress everybody, we dress up a bit," said William Zeller, the lone male in the choir.

Zeller joined the choir approximately 15 years ago and said, "I can't stay away; it's too much fun."

He also likes the family atmosphere.

Zeller is a cousin of Gilbert's, and Brenda Legleiter is related to several members through marriage. The rest of the choir has even closer family ties.

One of the three youngest members is Gilbert's granddaughter, Erica Gilbert, a freshman at La Crosse High School.

"I watched my grandma direct, and she wanted us to start (ringing) in fifth grade," said Erica Gilbert, who said it was a natural fit for her to join the bell choir.

Lexi Anderson, an eighth-grader at La Crosse and the youngest member of the choir, also followed in the footsteps of her grandmother, Debbie Rogers.

Debbie Rogers' sister, Kerri Morgan, also rings. And Irvin's twin sister, Sheryl Rogers, also is a member, as is Rogers' daughter-in-law, Carin Rogers.

Even with the normal busy school schedule of a teenager, Anderson said she doesn't mind the once-a-week practices. In fact, she looks forward to them.

"You don't have to think about your homework when you're here," Anderson said.

Stephanie Greenway, a junior at Ellis High School, is part of a three-generation family threesome as her mom, Paula Greenway, and her grandmother, Ruth Crawshaw, also ring.

"I like it," Stephanie Greenway said. "It kind of relaxes you."