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The first time she made the journey up the First-Plymouth Church bell tower in 1968, Kathie Johnson made the mistake of wearing high heels.

"I came up for the (organ dedication) concert and thought, 'Oh, I'd like to see the carillon,'" she said. "The next day, my calves and legs were very sore."

But Johnson has gotten used to the journey up the 171-foot tower during the 50 years she's played the carillon, a musical instrument that controls the bells. The instrument requires the player to use their fists, as opposed to fingers on a keyboard. Bells can also be controlled using foot pedals.

The church at 20th and D streets offers tours of the bell tower given by Johnson twice a year, once in the spring and another in the fall. A tour Wednesday night drew about 75 people, program director Addie Vortherms said.

First-Plymouth's carillon is the oldest of the three located in the state. The bells are unique in that they were not just bought by the church, but with the help of other organizations and individuals in Lincoln, making them "community bells," Johnson said.

Originally, 35 bells were purchased from Taylor and Sons Foundry in Loughborough, England. Because of a tariff on the bells, it cost First-Plymouth extra money to get them from England.

But then-Rev. Ben Wyland worked with then-Nebraska Sen. George W. Norris to get an amendment passed by Congress to put the bells on a "free list." That allowed the church to get 13 more bells for the dedication on Memorial Day in 1931.

The bell tower also underwent renovations in 1990, as the bell frame was rusted and bell bolts were popping, Johnson said. The renovation added nine bells, bringing the total to 57.

The carillon was moved during the renovation to a higher level.

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The move meant air conditioning and heat for the musician, something the lower level did not provide, Johnson said.

"In the winter, we wore our coats and had a heater on each side and played, and in the summer, we opened the windows," she said. "And then there were wasps flying around, so you had to swat them. But we made sure to have air conditioning and heat up here."

Johnson's husband, Ray, also played the carillon at First-Plymouth and had a "guild" of people who played the instrument, most of who were in their 70s, Johnson said.

"I took lessons and practiced and filled in for him when he wasn't able to play," she said.

Now, Johnson plays the carillon every Sunday after church and for other events, including weddings and the occasional funeral.

In addition to the tours in the spring and fall, she also takes requests for private tours of the tower.

Vortherms said the bell tower itself has become "iconic to Lincoln."

"I think people who maybe don't go to First-Plymouth but have seen the tower in the neighborhood, it's a chance for them to actually go up there and see the instrument as well as the scenic views of the community," she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or cspilinek@journalstar.com.

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