Published March 31st, 2020 at 6:03 PM
The first strains of bagpipe music wafting from the neighborhood pocket park near 70th Street and Valley Road in Kansas City on Monday brought stuck-at-home neighbors to their screen doors.
A man poked his head out and looked in all directions, unable to pinpoint the source of the plaintive notes.
A young girl was quicker.
“I see him!” she shouted, and took off down the street, her mother close behind.
John Tootle had arrived.
He stood on the grass in his kilt, black vest and crisp white shirt and lifted sweet, lilting notes into the evening. Families abandoned their dinner preparations. Some of the adults grabbed their evening cocktails. They drifted outside, enjoying the sight and sounds of a bagpiper in their midst.
Tootle, 60, has been piping most of his life. He and his bagpipes have tended to broken hearts at about 3,000 funerals and brought joy to a few hundred weddings. He played for weary cyclists every evening of a 40-day, cross-country bike ride as a way to honor his late father.
Now, he’s using his talent to lift the spirits of his community.
It started a couple of weeks ago. Apparently someone phoned 911 to complain about another bagpiper practicing in the evening in the Brookside neighborhood. Tootle, who lives nearby, heard about it and took his pipes to the other guy’s block to show his solidarity.
Neighbors appreciated the performance and commented on Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social media site. Tootle saw the comments and they gave him an idea.
He posted a comment on Nextdoor: “So who wants to hear bagpipes during the early evening occasionally?”
Everybody, it seems.
“I would love it.”
What started as generic approval quickly morphed into invitations, and now Tootle spends most evenings moving around neighborhoods, mostly in the Brookside area.
He parks his vehicle, stations himself in a park or on a corner, and plays songs for about 15 minutes. He pauses between numbers to wave to people and crack a few jokes, and closes with a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
By day, Tootle is a retired Kansas City firefighter and paramedic. He takes online courses in a quest to become a registered nurse. Firefighting, he says, is the second best job he’s ever had; the best is being a father to his 16-year-old twin sons.
Tootle started learning to pipe at age 26, taught by instructors at the Kansas City St. Andrew Pipes and Drums. After a while his work as a firefighter got in the way, but Tootle found another piper who worked nights to practice with.
“I was excited about it,” he said. “I learned for my father. He loved the pipes.”
His father, Thomas Tootle, died from lung cancer at age 60 in 1990. In his honor, Tootle embarked on a cross-country bike ride sponsored by the American Lung Association eight years later. A support vehicle transported his bagpipe, and Tootle entertained the other cyclists nightly. When the group pulled into Washington D.C. he piped at the National Monument.
That was a thrill, he said, but his greatest delight as a bagpiper has come from — oddly enough — playing at funerals.
“You have an opportunity to be of service,” he said.
Tootle said he’s played at seven funerals and four weddings for one large family. “I’m so glad you were here today,” one of the newly widowed spouses told him. “You were my husband’s last request.”
At a wedding, he said, the bride kept him a secret so she could surprise her father. His appearance moved her dad to tears.
Tootle’s appearances in these strange days of COVID-19 isolation are more cheerful than many of his gigs, but still sentimental.
At 70th Street and Valley Road on Monday, about 30 neighbors stood around while Tootle closed with “Amazing Grace.”
“This is great,” said Jenny Stasio, who watched with her husband and two daughters. “We’re just out for our nightly walk. We didn’t know he’d be out here.”
Hugh Wooden, a friend of Tootle’s, heard the bagpipe strains from a nearby block. Wooden alertly grabbed a beer before leaving his home, which Tootle appreciated.
“Come back,” people called, as they drifted toward their homes.
Tootle said there are better bagpipers than him in Kansas City. But perhaps no one is having as much fun as he is right now.
“I’m glad I can put a smile on someone’s face in these times,” he said. “We all need a little grace right now.”
Flatland contributor Barbara Shelly is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.