Give people more than they expect and do it cheerfully

Unsilent Night

Snyder Hall’s Dial-A-Carol remains alive and ringing after half a century
Illinois Alumni magazine December 2010

Want to be serenaded with “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” at 2 a.m.? No problem. “Come All Ye Faithful” … in Latin? Coming right up. It’s all in a day and night’s work for Snyder Hall’s Dial-A-Carol volunteers, who satisfy callers’ desires for Christmas carols, common and obscure, for one week every year.

Dial-A-Carol marks its 50th anniversary this December. Ever since 1960, when, so the story goes, building secretary Betty Gordon thought it would be nice to spread some holiday cheer, students have been playing or singing seasonal carols to anyone who calls (217) 332-1882.

While some things have changed — i.e. the entire digital revolution, from desktop computers, to Google, MP3 files and the like, the Dial-A-Carol spirit has remained the same. Students still man a conference room decorated with dime-store tinsel and cardboard wall decorations 24 hours a day for the week beginning at midnight of reading day (this year from 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 9 until 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 16). Thousands of people from all over the country and as far away as India, Australia and China, have phoned in annually to seek a bit of holiday cheer.

The callers may request a sing-in-real-time-by-real-people tune or one played from a recording. The 100th person who rings up automatically gets a live rendition.

When Shannon Pendleton Beesley called Dial-A-Carol last year it was late, she was alone (having been recently divorced)and she figured, “why not?”

“A friend of mine told me about it and at first I called to test it out, was it really true?” she said. “Who in their right mind, especially during exams, would spend all that time, 24/7, answering the phone and singing carols?”

In these days of Facebook, Twitter and every other digital distraction, what makes an event this old-fashioned draw callers year after year? And, most importantly, how can a residence hall, with a population that changes faster than the speed of Santa’s sleigh, keep up the tradition?

Scott Griesbach, who was the resident director of Snyder from 1982-84, figures Dial-A-Carol’s longevity must be some kind of record.

“I have worked in university housing for 30 years and I have never heard of anything else lasting this long,” now at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. “I think it’s a combination of mass appeal, with something a little unique and kitchy. I know it is something that the resident director would feel horrible if they didn’t continue it. I felt that way when I was at Snyder.”

For Beesley there was something about the good will, even if the singing wasn’t top drawer, that just jingled her bell. It turned out that she was the last call of the 2009 season and, instead of requesting a specific song, she had the carolers choose.

“I figured they probably had a favorite, and that they’d put more into it if it was their favorite,” she said.

Their choice? “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (both male and female voices),, with perhaps half a dozen singers. “I could tell they were having fun with it,” she said. “Anybody can do iTunes but it loses something; this is a personal connection. I did it for kicks and giggles, it was really fun.”

Although organizers say most of the callers are alumni scattered to the far corners of the world (as well as current UI students, faculty and staff), many hear of the program some other way. Last year radio stations in six states plus Canada announced the program and gave out the number. In 2006 BBC Radio got wind of Dial-A-Carol and called several times, trying to get the students to sing obscure (for Americans) Christmas ballads. They may have been poking fun at Dial-a-Carol, but most people call for the happiness quotient.

Adam Wills, who has no University connection, heard about Dial-a-Carol from a friend.

“I thought how the heck can they do this, so I called,” he said. “They were not necessarily the best singers but it was totally awesome. They were having a blast with it. It was goofy and fun in a dorky kind of way. My kids loved it (they requested “Jingle Bells Batman Smells”) and I posted it on Facebook.”

The event typically attracts in the range of 1,500 calls, though with social networking Wills said he wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are closer to 10,000 this year. Griesbach remembers having just one phone to handle calls. Last year three laptops and three phones handled the requests.

Since 2008, students have been able to play songs straight from the computer into the phone, rather than playing a record, cassette or CD and holding the phone to the speaker. And carolers can, of course, look up lyrics online, a far cry from the days when, as one press release states, the carolers were limited to a box of 65 holiday records and cassettes in their possession. Dial-a-Carol doesn’t restrict its volunteers to Snyder Hall residents and finds the hardest slots to fill — not surprisingly for the college crowd — are 6-10 a.m.

And the program attracts plenty of volunteers and callers who don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas. One of this year’s student leaders, Fazle “Mahi” Karim is a Muslim who grew up in Bangkok, Thailand. “It’s the biggest tradition that we have in our hall,” says Karim, who attended Catholic school and picked up his knowledge of Christmas songs by listening to carolers and watching television in his childhood city.

Karim says that students stop by throughout the week to volunteer and absorb the good cheer. Singing puts everyone in a happy mood, he says, and often students call just before an exam to request a song for good luck.

The good cheer and tradition go both ways, between callers and carolers. Griesbach, delighted to know the program is still running, “absolutely will call this year.” Likewise Beesley. “I’ll probably call multiple times,” she says, “and have my kids (ages 8,6 and 2) call too.”

Same goes for Wills. “It’s now a family tradition,” he says.

Get ready. It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas.

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