PORTVILLE — Those who’ve spent any time in Portville have probably heard the Westminster carillon sounding the hour.
Visitors enjoying a longer stop have likely experienced the sound of hymns, or in this season, Christmas carols, wafting through the community. Only some, however, will know or remember the story of how the chimes coming from the tower of the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street came to be.
More than four decades ago when Walt Atkinson received a job offer from Worthmore Feeds in Olean, he and his wife, Lois Atkinson, decided to relocate their family in Portville. The couple had met at Rochester Business Institute. Lois Atkinson was from Canandaigua, and her husband hailed from Athens, Pa. By the time the Olean job offer came along, Walt Atkinson was working in the family business. A son, David, and daughter, Debra, had been born, and Lois Atkinson was pregnant with their third child, Susan.
“We looked at houses in Allegany, but the only house we liked was the one in Portville,” Lois Atkinson said.
Soon, they were putting down roots in the community. While taking a class, Walt Atkinson met a man who invited them to join the choir at the First Presbyterian Church.
“We loved the choir and met such friendly people there,” Lois Atkinson said.
When their daughter Debbie was about 9 years old, she began having problems. Lois Atkinson said they weren’t too worried at first, as the child could bruise easily because hemophilia ran in the family.
But that wasn’t what was wrong.
A doctor’s appointment would bring devastating news: Debbie had leukemia. Subsequent appointments were made at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo on referral from Portville’s Dr. Duncan Wormer.
“They were doing experimental treatments there, and doctors talked about Debbie needing platelets,” Lois Atkinson recalled. “We didn’t know what we were going to do, but we told our church family and they said, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Her best friend, Ginny Dorman, wife of Portville coach Dennis Dorman, began to round people up to donate blood for the sick girl.
“People from our church drove the 80 miles to Buffalo and found out they had to be checked before they could donate,” said Lois Atkinson. “So Dr. Wormer said he would check anyone who wanted to donate. That started the ball rolling.”
Lois Atkinson said she is forever grateful to Ginny Dorman for what she did.
“She came up with around 100 people willing to donate and kept a list. Others called her, and if someone couldn’t go, there were people to fill in,” Lois Atkinson said. “There were also people willing to drive others to the hospital.”
Soon, the entire community was involved.
“There was even a group that went up in a snowstorm and stayed overnight until it was over,” she said.
Hospital staff were so impressed with the turnout for one little girl, they asked the Atkinsons how they had done it so information could be shared with other families needing assistance.
Despite all the efforts, however, Debbie died July 20, 1968, at age 12. Her family was devastated — yet surrounded by their church family and the community. As they received expressions of sympathy that included donations, the couple decided they’d like to do something that would benefit not only their fellow church members, but the entire community as well.
“We had always been impressed by the carillon at St. Mary’s in Olean and wondered, ‘Why not something like that for Portville?’” Lois Atkinson said.
So they contacted Bell Industries in Cleveland. The company visited the village and even offered to donate a plaque in Debbie’s memory, which now hangs in the sanctuary of the church.
Originally, in addition to the hourly chimes, which now sound between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., a live organist would play hymns and Christmas carols.
“It’s mostly recorded and computerized now,” Lois Atkinson said. Tunes typically play for a brief time in the morning and early evening now, and can be silenced during events such as Music in the Park.
For years, Walt Atkinson was the caretaker of the carillon, but due to health problems he had to pass the torch to two other church members, Norman King and Joe Hill.
The Rev. Marilyn Hale said it was hard for him to give that up. She can’t always hear the music from the towers when she is in the church below, but when she came in 1997 the carillon were already a part of Portville’s community.
“When you hear the carols, it does bring your heart and mind right into the season,” Hale said.
Lois Atkinson has heard many positive things from community members regarding the gift the family made in memory of their little girl.
“Hunters have even told me they’ve heard the music as far away as West Clarksville on a clear day,” she said. Daughter Susan and her husband Steve have been staying with the Atkinsons since they’ve had medical issues, and Lois Atkinson considers that a blessing. Others still help them.
“There is no place like Portville,” she said.
“This community and our church family have blessed us so much.”
When she hears the carillon or others tell her stories about them, she smiles, thinking of the little girl who was quiet, loved animals and released the fish she regularly caught from Dodge Creek.
“We have to keep the good things alive,” she said.