Greyscale photograph of Central Hall.

The Day We Peaked: A Visit to the Top of Central Hall

Written by Nina Hufford

I visited Hillsdale College for the first time as a senior in high school. During that visit, I shadowed Paul Keenan, a high school friend who was a sophomore at the time. As I settled into a chair in a Kendall classroom to hear Provost Whalen lecture on Alexander Pope, I glanced out the window and all of a sudden had a burning question.

“If I come here, will I get to climb to the top of that building?”

Paul looked at me, a little surprised, and said, “I don’t think so. They don’t usually let students up there… One time a man got special permission to propose to his girlfriend, but other than that, I don’t think people go up there.”

Instead of dampening my aspiration, this answer made me want to make the climb even more. If anything, Paul’s mention of there being an exception to the rule lingered in my mind.

Fast forward four years, and I found myself face to face with an opportunity to summit Central Hall. I signed up for the chance in a silent auction and hoped against hope that no one would beat my bid of twenty-one dollars.

Somehow, I won. I asked my friend Eleni to go with me, and a few days later we met with Assistant Dean of Men Jeffery “Chief” Rogers. As he led us to the top, I couldn’t believe that this was happening. My dream of four years was coming true, with a dear friend I had met at Hillsdale as an added gift.

On our way up, Chief told us that sneaking into Central Hall is a pastime as old as the College itself. At one point in our ascent, he pointed to some graffiti on the wall, which read “Carol Stroud, 1934. FROSH.” He told us that Stroud had snuck into the clock tower as a freshman and kept her exploit quiet until near her death. When she did spill her secret, her children couldn’t believe the story because they knew Stroud to be a quiet, straight-laced rule follower. They flew to Central Hall to fact check, and Chief led them up the same stairs we were climbing to discover their mother’s spray-painted legacy.

Although we were charmed by this story, Chief told us that the clock tower is too dangerous for people to climb without a guide. I could see this clearly, since some of the floorboards were a bit too flexible when I stepped on them, and we had to walk carefully around some areas. Those who sneak in don’t have the same opportunities they once had, since there is now a bolted door in front of the hole they used to come through. They also have to make their ascent in the dark. I felt personally convicted of the danger of soloing when Chief told me at one point:

“You’re not standing on the floor right now.”

I looked up at him expecting to see a smile but instead saw that he was serious. I stepped aside and noticed a hole in the floor, right beneath my shoe.

To get to the top of the tower, we needed to scale many flights of creaking, wooden stairs. We passed hundreds of signatures of those who had made the journey before us, and I spotted names of people I knew among them. There were also tributes to off-campus houses, and Chief gave us the O.K. to add our houses to the list.

When we finally reached the ladder leading to the top, Chief went up and called down to us that he needed to hit the hatch a couple of times before we could climb through, to scare the pigeons away. After this, he expertly climbed through, and we both scrambled after.

At the top, it felt like we could see the whole world. The wind whipped around us, and I instantly felt afraid of how high up we were. From this perspective, the flagpole looked like a piece of Playmobil, and the heavy-duty trucks and tractors surrounding the chapel looked like toys from a child’s sandbox.

Eleni exclaimed that this perspective changed her view of Hillsdale. It was like seeing the forest once you finally make it out of the woods. For the first time, we could see everything at once.

In a strange way, the climb up the clock tower is symbolic of the way Hillsdale works. After hiking up countless flights of stairs and crawling through a hatch covered in pigeon poop, we suddenly saw a new world on the horizon. This is how education often feels. We work through sleepless nights, crazy hours, hell week, and finals week, and when we are finally at the end, out of breath and slightly exhausted, we see that we have reached a new vantage point and gained an ability to see the world in a more beautiful way.

Nina Hufford, ’20, grew up in Ann Arbor, MI, where she inherited her outdoor spirit and elephant pants. She studies English and Spanish at Hillsdale, as well as the trees, poems, and people she encounters daily. In her free time, she enjoys canoeing, playing soccer, and swinging on the porch.

Published in June 2019