Master bagpiper keeps culture alive
Upon hearing that his ride Saturday night had pulled up to his home in Mack — a stretch limousine for his surprise party bound for Grand Junction — 80-year-old Hugh Thackaberry replied like any good Scotsman would.
More precisely, like “Hughy” would react to unexpected news.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Thackaberry’s sister, Nora, said of her brother’s reaction.
On a rainy, dreary night fit for his native Scotland, friends, family and a sampling of his numerous students over the years gathered at Gelato Junction Cafe, 2913 F Road, to talk about Thackaberry, Mesa County’s venerable master of the bagpipes.
They gathered under the auspices of a traditional Robert Burns birthday celebration, honoring the Scottish poet.
Thackaberry, however, didn’t know it was also a private party in his honor.
He was escorted through the open doors of the restaurant by the six-member band, Rocky Mountain Scots, who were blasting bagpipes to the beat of a snare drum played by Thackaberry’s daughter, Kaydell Stewart. Thackaberry strutted in glory past them, waving a traditional mace with one arm, an oxygen tank slung over his opposite shoulder.
“I didn’t expect limousine service,” Thackaberry said. “I’m shocked.”
“They played very well,” he said of the band.
High praise from a man who’s a familiar face to anyone with anything to do with bagpipes in Mesa County.
Thackaberry’s blaring pipes have been a common sight during Fruita’s Fall Festival parade, countless Veterans Day parades and other holidays and festivals, in addition to funeral services for military veterans.
“I can’t tell you how many weddings he’s played,” said family friend Blaine Eastwood.
Born in a small town outside Glasgow, Scotland, Thackaberry’s family moved to the Grand Valley nearly 18 years ago.
A decorated U.S. Army veteran who served in the Korean War, Thackaberry also instructed numerous students on how to properly play.
Thackaberry, among other traits, is above all a perfectionist, many said.
“I think he’s taught about as many students as he’s fired,” Stewart said. “He knows right away if you’ve practiced just by the way you hold your fingers.”
Thackaberry doesn’t play at the frequency he did prior to a diagnosis of lung cancer two years ago, when doctors removed roughly one quarter of a lung. It didn’t silence him, either.
“He started playing again about two months after the surgery,” said son-in-law Shawn Stewart.
Many hoped, before Saturday night’s celebration ended, he’d break out the pipes again in Gelato Junction Cafe.
“I hope Dad understands how much he means to the Grand Valley, trying to keep a culture alive here for future generations,” Kaydell Stewart said.
“That what he’s hoped and dreamed for.”