50 Years of Tartan: The Gordon Pipers Story
Those of us smitten by the Indy 500 have come to expect certain traditions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) on race day: the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana, the balloon release, and the call to Start Your Engines. There’s another, equally embedded tradition that is celebrating its golden anniversary this year – an organization that traces its roots, not surprisingly, to Tony Hulman: The Gordon Pipers.
In 1962, Indianapolis veterinarian Dr. Wallace Gordon Diehl founded the Scottish-inspired parade unit after a split from the Murat Highlanders pipe band. At the time, the Highlanders required members to be male and more than six-feet-two inches in height. Desiring a more inclusive option, Diehl and four other Highlanders defected to create an opportunity for their daughters and short-of-stature sons to march in a pipe band. Casting about for a moniker, they settled on founder Doc Diehl’s middle name and became the Gordon Pipers.
IMS patriarch Tony Hulman saw them perform at a car show and was impressed by the crowd they’d drawn. “Everybody loved ’em!” according to Doug Hardwick, the current president of the Gordon Pipers. Hulman invited the troupe to perform at the 1963 Indy 500 and at that year’s Victory Banquet, he vowed that as long as his family owned the Speedway, the Gordon Pipers would be a featured attraction. Thus was born the Indianapolis 500 Gordon Pipers.
A not-for-profit organization, the Gordon Pipers have a $40,000 budget funded by performance fees from patrons like IMS, the Indianapolis Colts (as the Horseshoe Pipes and Drums), numerous parades in Indiana, and beyond. “We’re ambassadors for the Indy 500 and the City of Indianapolis,” explained Hardwick. Their reach is international, too, having marched in Scotland and Canada. “Some of us are talking about traveling to Afghanistan to play for the American troops there,” shared Hardwick.
In 1968, Connie Summers began as a Gordon dancer, then added bagpipes to her repertoire the following year. Her daughter, Melissa Whybrew, began performing at age three and a half and is now the dance sergeant and a tenor drummer. “I was born into the band and grew up in it,” said Whybrew. “Now, I have a four-month-old son and he’s destined to be a Piper.” Summers, who once fell during a performance (“I’ve never forgotten that!”), noted there are several children and grandchildren of current members who are Gordon Pipers. “Doug and I grew up together,” reminisced Summers. “The band is very much a close-knit family.”
So you’d like to be a Gordon Piper? Well, first you’ll learn their songs by blowing into a chanter. Resembling a wooden recorder (or the Flutophone you squawked on in elementary school), the chanter has several finger holes and is used to play the melody. Next, you’ll learn to manipulate the air bag for consistent sound, followed by marching lessons. Within a year, you’ll be performing in parades. Outfitting the pipers, drummers, and dancers costs about $2,000 per person. No one is paid to perform – the reward comes with travel opportunities.
Band members range in age from 13 to 60 years, and membership hovers around 40 people. “It’s a diverse group including doctors, a retired Marine, police officers – it’s an amazing mix of people,” marveled Hardwick. Extras are necessary because players rotate in and out as their schedules permit. “People have faith, family, and jobs,” said Hardwick, who’s always interested in new members. The band offers instructional classes every three months or so. “Potential pipers have to commit to weekly practices. We like young players, but several recent additions have been age 50 or more. A 72-year-old drummer just retired.”
When the Gordon Pipers perform, Geist is well represented. In addition to Hardwick, Tim Bastion, Sharon Hudgens and her daughters, Jessica and Laura, reside in Geist neighborhoods. “I like the opportunities that being a Gordon Piper has opened up,” said Laura Hudgins. “We just played at the Florida Indycar race, and it was fun seeing the race and being next to the drivers.”
For a 50th consecutive year, you’ll see – and hear – the Gordon Pipers at the Speedway throughout May. And when you do, give a tip of the cap to ol’ Tony for discovering such a marvelous civic treasure.
More information is available at www.500gordonpipers.com. And you can follow them on Twitter (@500GordonPipers).