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Bagpipers find new meaning

By Matt Russell

mrussell@postbulletin.com

T

hey’ll walk into Rochester bars in kilts today, likely turning heads with their first mournful, high-volume notes.

The group of musicians, which calls itself Rochester Pipes and Drums, has made a tradition of playing bagpipes at local bars on St. Patrick’s Day, with "Amazing Grace" among the standards they play each year.

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But "Amazing Grace" will have a deeper meaning to members when they play it this year.

One of Rochester Pipes and Drums’ leaders and most enthusiastic players, Dr. Doug Johnson of Rochester, was diagnosed with liver cancer in January 2006.

He missed last year’s St. Patrick’s Day bar tour because he was recovering from a liver transplant. At the same time, however, the transplant gave him and his bandmates reason to hope his health could turn around.

Bad news came in May, however, when Johnson learned the transplant didn’t stop his cancer, which was growing and gaining strength.

Soon thereafter, he brought his bagpipe for one last practice with the Pipes and Drums.

Memories of that night are still strong with the other bagpipers. Johnson wore a corset-like band around his body to help him physically handle instrument, showing remarkable stamina as he played. And at the end of the practice, he asked the group a question.

Could they play "Amazing Grace"?

So they did.

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Even when he could no longer play the bagpipes, Johnson didn’t leave the group. With a baton in hand, he led Rochester Pipes and Drums in two parades in June, the last at Rochesterfest.

Johnson died on July 26. He was 56 years old, leaving a wife and two daughters. Friends from the bagpiping group played at the funeral, with "Amazing Grace" among the songs Johnson had asked them to play.

The mood around Rochester Pipes and Drums will be much different today when they perform at several Rochester bars. When it comes time to play "Amazing Grace," however, you’ll have to forgive them if their minds seem elsewhere.

Page B3: St. Patrick’s Day events today

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