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Years later, he's leader of the pipes

The band chief has worked for presidents on planes and kids in hospitals.

Published July 13, 2007


Back and forth across the small room the pipers and drummers exchange sarcastic remarks. After each joke, the clubhouse gets louder.

In the midst of it all, a single voice overpowers the many. "Okay, it's time to play," Joseph McFalls calls out from a small wood table in the corner.

The voices of the Egypt Temple Highlanders pipe and drum band settle. The men pull out their chanters and ready themselves for practice. McFalls calls out a tune.

Then, "Forward march."

The band doesn't march, but it begins to play. The small room, boasting of Scottish pride, is filled with a steady drumbeat and the melody of bagpipes.

When the tune ends, their faces are as red as the carpet they stand on. Each man takes a deep breath. McFalls calls out another tune.

He's the pipe major.

Every Tuesday, he leads the Highlanders in practice at the Egypt Shrine Activity Building in Tampa. They are one of four Shriner bagpipe bands in Florida and do gigs all over the city, including the annual Gasparilla parade. "Best Marching Band of 2007," reads a plaque on the wall.

- - -

McFalls, 82, seems perfect for the role of a pipe major. From Dundee, Scotland, his thick accent adds a sense of character to each tune he calls out. His voice commands respect.

He started to learn the bagpipes as a child, but never finished. It wasn't until he was 68 that he taught himself to play.

"I admire him, because he doesn't read music. He put the alphabet to music and just practiced," his wife, Grace, said.

When he was a teenager in Scotland, McFalls was drafted by the Royal Navy and served as an armed guardsman in World War II. After the war, he came to America and tried to join the U.S. Navy. He passed all the tests, but was turned away because he wasn't a U.S. citizen.

"I walked out with my tail between my legs," McFalls said. "Then, an Air Force recruiter offered me a job."

He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1949, working as a bricklayer until the Korean War. Sent to the Philippines and Japan, he did cloak-and-dagger work, transporting spies. When the war ended, he was stationed at Morrison Air Force Base in West Palm Beach.

"I lucked out in West Palm," he said. "It's the playground of millionaires."

West Palm Beach is where McFalls trained for his career, what he calls the "party" of his life. He was a flight attendant and later became an instructor on the base. In class, he met two men from Air Force One, the presidential airplane.

In 1954, Morrison Air Force Base closed. Without a job, McFalls contacted the men from Air Force One. They had him ordered to Andrews Air Force Base, and just like that, the president had a new flight attendant.

On Air Force One, McFalls met the who's who of Washington. A glass cabinet in his living room serves as his own museum. Inside are presidential pens that bear the names Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan. Off to the side sits a silver coin of Sandra Day O'Connor's inauguration in 1981.

McFalls smiles as he opens his thick autograph book. Browned with age, it is signed by all the famous people he's served, including Jacqueline Kennedy and John Glenn.

Each signature tells a story, such as that of former Chief Justice Warren Burger.

"I introduced him to scotch single malt. He was a Chivas Regal man and thought it was the best scotch. I had to tell him, no it's a blend, not a pure scotch," McFalls said.

Burger then opened the doors to the U.S. Supreme Court for McFalls. In 1977, he retired from the Air Force and started his new career as a chef and caterer for the chief justices' wives.

"It was a lot like Air Force One - a big party that was only breaking me in for this job," McFalls said.

A party it was. Sometimes, it was two parties at the same time. He recalls almost getting into trouble after he spiked the punch with vodka. Instead, he was told to just add a little more punch.

McFalls retired from the Supreme Court's kitchen in 1987. Despite two pensions, he still works. In his latest job he raises money for and volunteers at the Shriners Hospitals, as he leads the Highlanders.

McFalls became a Shriner in 1968, after he visited a Shriners hospital in Pennsylvania.

"All it takes is one trip to the hospital to see the ways we can help these children and then you're hooked," McFalls said.

McFalls brings out another autograph book. This one is signed by a group of children he played for in Tampa.

- - -

It's 9:15 p.m., and practice is officially over.

Behind the bar, John Miller drinks a soda by a sign that reads, "No Shoes, No Kilt, No Service."

The drumbeat and melodic sound of the bagpipes continues as the band breaks up into groups of conversation.

Miller, the newest member, joined a year ago following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He plays the bass drum.

"Our purpose is to get our name out there and do good for the kids," he said.

The events they play vary from weddings to graduations. They play for donations only and have no set price.

"If you take a tour of the hospital, you'll understand why we do what we do," said piper Ed Smoak, who drives 70 miles round-trip for practice.

During summer, the Highlanders will be on hiatus. The heat is too much.

So the bagpipes may rest, but the Highlanders will not. They will dedicate their time to various events and fundraisers for the children at the hospital.

Jessica Brady can be reached at or 813 226-3339.

[Last modified July 12, 2007, 08:02:43]

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