Retired firefighter Dan Sheppard breathes Highland Park tradition
A man in a plaid kilt, green stockings, and a waistcoat stood outside Armstrong Elementary School with a set of bagpipes in his hands.
As students walked in on the first day of school, some stopped to get a picture with him while he played.
“This is the third year I’ve taken a picture with you,” one boy told the plaid piper. “I like hearing you play.”
Moments like that give Dan Sheppard, a retired fireman, a “sense of belonging” at Armstrong Elementary School, where he continues his bagpipe-playing tradition on the first day of the school year.
“I’ve enjoyed it each time,” Sheppard said. “It gives me kind of a kick to have people recognize that I’ve been there before.”
This tradition has gone on at Armstrong for many years and connects the students to Highland Park High School and its Scottish tradition.
“Our school district and community are grounded in tradition,” Armstrong Principal Betsy Cummins said. “We also use bagpipers at the high school that play, so this helps us become a part of one community.”
Sheppard has played the bagpipes for 25 years, starting his journey when he was 38 and a member of the Honor Guard. He discovered his passion when a bagpiper who played at memorial services taught him how to play “Amazing Grace.”
“That started me on my path that was so beloved,” he reminisced.
Since then, he has performed at church memorial services like Walk to Emmaus and Journey to Damascus pilgrims. He also plays for Brotherhood United, a pipe and drum band of firefighters from agencies throughout Texas who come together to pay tribute to fallen firefighters.
“I’ve seen a lot of horrific things,” Sheppard said. “But the bagpipes seem to be the one thing at a funeral where words can’t convey what the bagpipes can. The bagpipes are conveying this tradition. The students don’t know this, but maybe they’ll find out and be like, ‘Oh, I remember that guy that played the bagpipes.’”
Sheppard noticed that it was about time to conclude this year’s back-to-school performance.
As in years prior, he made his way to the American flag to play his final song.
In a fit of luck, the American flag was being raised as Sheppard played “America the Beautiful.” Parents paused on the lawn, listening to the loud bagpipes playing as the American flag rose.
“As long as I’m available and still playing well, and they’ll have me, I’ll do it because it’s a joy for me to do this,” Sheppard said. “Maybe one day a teacher will walk out and say, ‘When I was in third grade, I heard you play.’ I’ll feel really old, but I’ll feel accomplished.”