In 1936, the Phi Lambda Theta fraternity gave Bucknell University an artifact affectionately known as the Thomas West clock, often referred to as the “coal clock.” The clock was commissioned as a memorial by the Phi Lambda Theta fraternity, now known on campus as the Chi Phi fraternity, to honor one of their fallen brothers, Thomas Bahrt West, a member of the Bucknell Class of 1934, who died during his sophomore year in 1931. The clock is designed as a coal structure with the time mechanism placed in its center. “In Memory of Thomas Bahrt West” is carved into its base and the seal of Phi Lambda Theta fraternity carved along the top.
Phi Lambda Theta was founded at Bucknell in 1924, basing its membership on the character of a young man, regardless of his income or status. The chapter became a major academic and social force at Bucknell, even as it operated as a local fraternity dominated by larger, national fraternities on campus.. When Thomas West was a member of Phi Lambda Theta in 1931, the fraternity was alive and well, however, by 1935 – 1936 the chapter gave up its first house on 7th and Market Streets because of the depression and a bad financial situation. After the depression, the Phi Lambda Theta fraternity was revived and later joined the national organization of Chi Phi. Though many years have passed, Chi Phi brothers fondly remember many of the early Phi Lambda Theta members, including Thomas West.
Thomas Bahrt West was born in Coaldale, Pennsylvania on May 16, 1912. He attended the local Coaldale High School, graduating in 1929. The following year, he enrolled at Bucknell University with the class of 1934, and was affectionately known amongst his friends and classmates as “Tommy.” While on campus, he was a member of the Men’s Glee Club, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the Bucknellian, and the Phi Lambda Theta fraternity, as mentioned above.
In 1931, Thomas was admitted to the Bucknell’s Ziegler Memorial Infirmary for what everyone thought was enteritis, but was diagnosed as bulbar paralysis, a rare type of infant paralysis affecting the brainstem. West passed away, his family received letters of sympathy from both classmates and the Phi Lambda Theta fraternity, writing that West was esteemed as a classmate, gentleman, and friend. His Phi Lambda Theta brothers affectionately wrote, “He was one of our Bucknell’s most outstanding students, being so well endowed by fate that success for him would have been inevitable,” (1934 L’ Agenda). Thomas West was also honored by Phi Mu Alpha by the donation $250.00 gift to the Student Loan Fund, establishing the Thomas West Fund in memory of their fallen member. Seven seniors were able to graduate through the Student Loan Fund, with one student supported by the Thomas West Fund.
A November 1975 letter written by Lloyd Hoffman, General Secretary for the Phi Lambda Theta fraternity and a member of the Bucknell class of 1932, describes how the clock was donated to Bucknell after the fraternity was disbanded in 1936. The University accepted the Thomas West clock and it was placed in storage in “Old Main,” now known as Roberts Hall. Eventually, the the “coal clock” made its way to the Bertrand Library and was displayed for many years in the acquisitions department until it was transferred to Special Collections/University Archives, where it is on display in the reading room exhibit cases.
Remembered fondly by so many, the clock honors Thomas Bahrt West and reminds us of his place in Bucknell’s history as a valued and cherished classmate and student. If you are interested in seeing the “coal clock” or learning more about this early Bucknell student, do not hesitate to stop by the Special Collections/University Archives on Lower Level 1 of the Bertrand Library.