By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 9, 2017
JACKSON—As a kid, Richard McPhee played the clarinet. But when his firefighter father asked for “Amazing Grace” at his funeral with the skirl of the pipes, McPhee pledged to his father, he’d take care of it.
Now the family does not take a trip without the bagpipes. From national parks and Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the pipes have made an appearance.
During a recent morning at their parish, St. Mary, Mother of God Church, Jackson, the boom of the drum and the pipes could be heard from the parking lot. It was Missy McPhee swinging the mallets with a flourish, keeping the beat to Rich’s pipes for “Scotland the Brave.”
At this time of year as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, this was a rare unscheduled morning for them. Richard had played the day before, and his afternoon was to be taken up with an appointment 50 miles north in Atlanta.
The Atholl Highlanders Pipes and Drums USA, the band where the McPhees play, has an appointment on Saturday, March 11, in the St. Patrick’s Day parade on Peachtree Street. He has also played at the annual tribute to Civil War pastor Father Thomas O’Reilly at Atlanta City Hall.
Military life sustained by faith
The McPhees are natives of Rochester, New York. They grew up in the same parish, St. Jerome Church. Born to families with generations of firefighters and police officers, they trace Celtic roots to Scottish and Irish immigrants.
They knew each other as teens, but only because Richard was friends with Missy’s older brother. There weren’t any romantic sparks. That is until Richard came home from the U.S. Military Academy and called her. That began a courtship. They exchanged vows at their parish on St. Patrick’s Day. They will celebrate 38 years of marriage on March 17.
That was the start of an itinerant career in the military of more than 30 years.
“We left, and we never really went home,” he said.
There were deployments to conflict zones, from the deserts of the Middle East to the Balkans and the Korean peninsula. There were more than 20 moves over the years.
Through it all, the two credit their faith for keeping their family together. The Catholic chapel on a military installation became an instant source of friends as the McPhee family packed up to a new state or country, with three children in tow.
The shared faith tied the family together through all those hardships, Missy McPhee said about the constant moving. “That is the core of our family, our faith.”
One of the big tests was during the Gulf War in 1991. Missy was giving birth in a hospital in Germany to their youngest child.
“I was in the desert,” Richard said. “You better have a strong faith.”
They finally settled in central Georgia after serving at military bases around the South. He retired holding the rank of brigadier general after a tour at the now-closed Fort McPherson, Atlanta.
Their son, Rich, graduated in 2009 from Our Lady of Mercy High School, Fayetteville, and from the U.S. Military Academy in 2013. He serves in the Army. Their two daughters work, one as a social worker and the other as a physician assistant.
Self-taught “not a good idea”
They are both members of the Atholl Highlanders, a Stone Mountain nonprofit organization. The 30-year-old organization has earned top awards at the Savannah Scottish Games and the Charleston Scottish Games in recent years.
Their kilts are green with red stripes of the Murray tartan. With a nod to the family tree, the neckties are the color of the McPhee family clan. Pins of the crests of the McPhee clan and her Connell clan decorate Missy’s Glengarry cap. Along with them is a service flag pin with two stars for their active duty son and daughter-in-law.
Missy, 58, on the tenor drum, and Richard, 60, on the pipes, acknowledged playing in a Celtic band may not be for everyone. But Atholl Highlanders works with anyone, no prior musical experience necessary. They’ll teach anyone to play the drums and the bagpipes.
“There are only nine notes. Simple,” he said.
Missy said she relishes the drum and playing. She was spending so much time waiting for Rich as he did band business, she opted to learn so she could be a part of it and spend more time with her husband.
He bought his first set when he pledged to learn in 2007 and taught himself while assigned to Naples, Italy.
“That is not a good idea because you actually learn bad habits. I took lessons when we returned to the states,” he said.
Richard has owned three sets of pipes. His current set made of African blackwood with inlaid silver he praised for its craftsmanship and compared it to “pieces of art.”
The pipes are a part of the family. “We go nowhere without our pipes,” he acknowledged.
Back in Rochester, Rich’s father hoped to have his favorite hymn played on the bagpipes at his funeral Mass. Rich fulfilled his father’s wish in 2014.
“I played ‘Amazing Grace,’ put my pipes down and then walked up and gave the eulogy,” he remembered.
National parks, family vacations, no reason necessary; the McPhee children had to get used to being embarrassed.
He even brought them for a parting salute to their youngest. McPhee told his son on his first day as a West Point cadet to open his window at 9 p.m. McPhee standing on the parade grounds proceeded to play.
Then on active duty as a general, McPhee was prepared to be cautioned when a military policeman showed up. Instead, it turned out the soldier with an Irish surname said, unless the commanding officer complained, the bagpipes were welcome.
“They have been a part of our life.”