Morristown says goodbye to DIY carillonneur with 49-bell salute

john dyer
John Dyer, carillonneur at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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It was a busy weekend for the 18-ton carillon at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown.

Sunday was the final concert of a summer series dedicated to John Dyer, who died in June at age 87.

His cremains were interred Saturday in the church’s memorial garden as the bronze bells solemnly tolled.

Those 49 bells stood silent for years, until Dyer secretly taught himself to play them in 1998.

The research chemist had been laid off, and was feeling lost. The church rector at the time knew Dyer dabbled on piano. Why not give the carillon a go? Dyer’s wife Jennifer nudged him.

A cicada checks out John Dyer’s beard. Sharon Sheridan photo

“You’ve got good rhythm,” she told her husband, reminding him of the dancing ability that won her over as a nursing student.

Dyer thrived on challenges. As a boy in England during World War II, he was packed off to live with relatives in Wales. In high school (“grammar school” in Brit-speak), a counselor advised him to find a job; he wasn’t college material.

While working at British Nylon Spinners, Dyer sped through night school to earn a degree from the Royal Institute of Chemistry.

After an Army stint, he got a physical chemistry doctorate at breakneck speed, too. His neatly hand-diagrammed thesis at the University of Manchester explored nuclear magnetic resonance.

John Dyer, then 85, peers from the St. Peter’s carillon cabin, COVID memorial, Jan. 19, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

At Johnson & Johnson, he earned six U.S. patents for inventions that included highly absorbent wound dressings and an x-rayable surgical sponge.

But the carillon, now that was a project.

It’s a different beast than the piano. Instead of keys, it has wooden slats. You pound them with your fists, and kick foot slats that resemble organ pedals.

“It’s like playing broom handles,” said Claire Janezic, the 22-year-old University of Rochester phenom who performed on Sunday.

Video: The Bells of St. Peter’s, 2010:

A carillon practice clavier was gathering dust in the church boiler room. Like a late 20th-century Phantom of the Opera, Dyer prowled down there, unseen by fellow parishioners.

One Easter Sunday, the congregation got a thunderous surprise. The belfry roared to life!

For the next quarter-century, Dyer ascended the church tower’s hundred spiral steps to the dimly lit “playing cabin” for countless weddings, funerals and worship services. On some Sundays, he would make the round-trip four times. Kept him in shape, he said throughout his 70s.

JINGLE BELLS, TOO

It’s said that St. Peter’s carillon–British bells installed starting circa 1922–can be heard a mile from South Street.

ON TOP OF THE WORLD: Mr. & Mrs. Claus, at a secret location in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
ON TOP OF THE WORLD: Mr. & Mrs. Claus, at a secret location in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Dyer sent more than traditional Anglican hymns and Christmas carols wafting over Morristown. Listeners might catch snippets of movie themes, jazz standards and Beatles favorites.

On a church cleanup day, volunteers were serenaded by Whistle While You Work, from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

He had other pursuits, of course. Dyer adored his two grandchildren, and enjoyed gardening and photography.

In younger days, he fancied spelunking, and helped discover a Welsh cave. In retirement, his ample white beard placed him in great demand during the holidays.

In this 2011 video, a jolly couple bearing a passing resemblance to John and Jennifer Dyer, in a place suggesting the North Pole atop a belfry, gives a scoop to cub reporters from Morristown Green:

Though some may have dismissed John Dyer as too svelte for Saint Nick, an eyewitness recalls a 6-year-old girl spying that frosty beard in a bookstore one summer and exclaiming: “I know you! You’re Santa!”

But the carillon was year-round fun.

“I love it!” Dyer proclaimed while giving a tour of the bells.

Jennifer and John Dyer in the St. Peter’s carillon cabin, COVID memorial, Jan. 19, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

When his health declined, the tower still beckoned. Hobbled after a serious spill at home that required brain surgery and weeks of rehab, he slowly made the climb in January 2021 to peal the bells on the eve of President Biden’s inauguration.

Biden had requested a nationwide remembrance of America’s COVID-19 victims.

“So many people have died, 400,000. The least we can do is ring our bells,” Dyer said that day. Jennifer kept count for him as he thwacked the slat 400 times.

Carillonneur Lisa Lonie mentored John Dyer on St. Peter’s carillon more than 20 years ago. Pictured here with Dyer, 86, in July 2021, Lonie played the carillon at Dyer’s funeral in August 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

St. Peter’s honored Dyer with an engraved plaque last summer. Despite his frailty, he expressed hope of playing the carillon again.

Plaque honoring St. Peter’s carillonneur John Dyer, presented in Morristown, Aug. 8, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Carillonneur Claire Janezic, 22, speaks with Jennifer Dyer after concert honoring her late husband, John Dyer, Aug. 7, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

On Sunday, a small audience lounged beneath a shade tree on the church’s Great Lawn, on another scorching August afternoon, for the summer’s sixth and final carillon concert honoring Dyer.

A sirocco toppled the collection basket, sparking a scramble to retrieve bills meant for Claire Janezic.

Fittingly, she delivered an eclectic program, ranging from Mendelssohn to the Muppets.

“He would have thoroughly enjoyed it,” Jennifer Dyer said. “She’s very good.”

Video: ‘I play it at funerals sometimes.’  An ailing John Dyer, then 85, performed ‘Abide With Me’ after tolling the bells for pandemic victims in January 2021.


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6 COMMENTS

  1. I had never met him and just came across this article courtesy of Episcopal News Service. After reading the article, I felt like I had been a parishioner at St. Peter’s and known him my entire life. Clearly the work of an excellent journalist. Thank you for this remarkable story and tribute.

  2. John Dyer is the type of person you encounter once in a lifetime — if you are lucky. He was brilliant, kind, and talented in so many ways. Thank you for this lovely tribute.

  3. We were away and unable to attend John’s service on Saturday. Your poignant reporting, Kevin, makes me feel like we were able to participate. Thank you.

  4. John Dyer was a unique musician whose spirit you captured perfectly! Thank you for sharing him and the carillion with those who knew and loved him!

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