Earl Cooper brought music to the Highland
|By Emily Stonehouse - Contributing Writer | April 12, 2018|
Music is a common language that links generations, families and stories. It’s an experience, a memory, a feeling. Music lives on in people’s hearts and minds, and few have offered this universal language to a community more than Earl Cooper.
Born in 1927, in the living-room of a farmhouse in West Guilford, Earl carved out a life for himself and his family in the community. He was a farmer, a lumberman, a teacher, a loving husband, a proud father, and a dedicated member of the Masonic Lodge and the Anglican Church. Earl contributed to this place we call home through his humble presence, yet those who knew him well knew his heart and soul lived through music.
Dabbling in everything from fiddle to mandolin to piano, most of us would recognize him with his bagpipes, and could share fond memories of Earl piping at our graduations, weddings, and every other celebration. He first heard the bagpipes in 1939, when he travelled to Toronto to see Queen Elizabeth and King George VI during their royal tour of Canada. As we all know, with the bagpipes, you can always hear them before you see them.
“He had no idea what they were,” recalls his wife of 60 years, Eleanor Cooper. “But he said he fell in love with the sound.” Shortly after that, he was given a set of pipes to practice on at Christmas time, and by Easter he was playing.
“He had a love for the sound of the pipes, but his dedication to it was simply driven by his need to do things right,” says Andrew Mansfield, current Pipe Major and a student of Earl’s for the past 25 years.
“When I would complain about something being difficult, he would say ‘it’s only hard the first thousand times so keep at it’.” Music flowed through Earl like a life force. Eleanor recalls Earl taking a brief hiatus from the pipes around 1955, but when they were expecting their first child, George Cooper in 1958, he picked them back up again, “to ensure George would grow up with music,” says Eleanor.
George remembers a beaten down path around the farmhouse, where his father would pace back and forth through the grass, every night, practicing the bagpipes. Eventually, George and his two brothers, Alan and Andy, joined him, and all three still play today in various locations around Canada. In 1970, Earl and his close friend, Don Johnston joined together to see if there were any other Highlanders in the Highlands: it was time to form a pipes and drums band. It was not always easy, but their persistence made it work.
“Don was the only drummer, and dad was the only piper, could they really make a band work?” says George about the early days.
Yet, with an outpouring of support from the Ladies Auxiliary, as well as a smattering of community interest, the Haliburton Highlanders Pipes and Drums Band came into fruition. For the past 48 years, the band has added musical pride to festivals, graduations, special events, parades, and celebrations across the county. When asked about how many of these budding young musicians were taught by Earl, Eleanor, George, and Andrew cannot fathom a guess, but they assume it is in the hundreds.
Last year, I was welcomed into the Cooper home, to sit in the living-room Earl was born in, and talk about the life and times of Haliburton’s first Pipe Major. As an aspiring piper myself, Earl offered me insight, stories, and encouragement. His eyes lit up when he spoke of music. He was a technical teacher, but you could tell that music lived in his heart. At the age of 91, Earl passed away in the same room he was born in, surrounded by family and listening to music.
I was welcomed back to their home, to talk to the family about the life of Earl. Yet before long, we had moved into the living-room, where everyone picked up an instrument and told his or her story through music, celebrating Earl’s life and legacy through song - exactly the way he lived it.
EMILY STONEHOUSE is a contributing writer for The Highlander.