The ringing of the bells


As soon as I heard of the Fourth of July massacre in Highland Park, Ill., I called my 94-year-old cousin, Gene, who had grown up there. We have been especially close, as I spent a year with his family in Highland Park when I was 9.

We spoke of the terrible shooting, of the child who was saved by his father lying on top of him and taking the bullet. As we reviewed the horror, Gene introduced a new theme to this increasingly familiar tragedy: “I bet that none of the children that were present will ever again want to go to a Fourth of July parade.” His prescient prophecy gave me shivers.

Here in Vineyard Haven, I participated in a very different and very Vineyardy remembrance of our national holiday. On Main Street, some of the shops were celebrating July 4 by “the Ringing of the Bells.” This was started by Jane Chandler, the owner of the Beach House, a popular gift shop on Main Street. Always a lover and collector of bells, Jane had also read about bells. In the early days of our republic, bells were constantly ringing — church bells, alarm bells, information bells. They took the place of telephones, radio, TV, fire alarms, until the need for them lessened as they were replaced by newer technologies. 

But in 1966, President John F. Kennedy wrote a resolution about Independence Day which “declares that the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be observed each year by the ringing of bells throughout the United States at the hour of 2 o’clock, Eastern daylight time, in the afternoon of the fourth day of July.” His resolution passed the House and Senate, and then Kennedy rang the first freedom bell on the last July Fourth of his life. Jane liked the idea, and started the custom on the Island of making this remembrance important. She received permission from town authorities to ring bells for two minutes at 2 pm on July 4, and has been doing it for the past 12 years, even during the pandemic. She is now joined by other shops on the street that are open on the holiday. This year a military veteran, Bob Tankard, read John Kennedy’s resolution. The small gathering was joined by three traffic police officers. I was very moved. 

As I stood there ringing a borrowed bell, I thought of its significance. How this simple two-minute ceremony reminds one of why this country was founded, what it means to all of us, and how important it is to remind ourselves that the fight is not over. In fact, maybe it has just begun.


Grace Kennan Warnecke is the former chairman of the board of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and author of the memoir “Daughter of the Cold War.” She is a seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven.