Bay Area Proud

‘I'm telling them we didn't forget': Bagpiper, 89, continues tradition of playing outside South Bay fire stations on 9/11

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Phil Lenihan’s love for bagpipes began when the first Highland Games he attended finished. 

It was the 1940s and Lenihan, then a New York City high schooler, went with his father to the Scottish sports gathering at Fordham University. The highlight of the closing ceremony was a sea of bagpipes and drums marching across a football field.

"And I never forgot it,” Lenihan said. “I said to myself, ‘I think I'd like to do that.’” 

It wasn’t until the 1980s when Lenihan was living in the South Bay and working in high tech that he got his opportunity. He met a coworker who played the bagpipes and was introduced to an instructor.

Lenihan took to it immediately, which was really no surprise. Lenihan seemed to have a knack for challenging himself through unique and laborious activities. In the 1970s, Lenihan was a pioneer in the sport of ultramarathoning, completing three 100-mile races. When his knees couldn’t take it anymore, he switched to in-line skating, being an instructor into his 80s.

The bagpipes, however, have remained a constant in Lenihan’s life for more than 40 years. Now 89 years old and living in the Saratoga Retirement Community, Lenihan has played in various bands over the years and for all types of occasions.

"Weddings, funerals, boat launchings, bar mitzvahs. I did a Korean Scottish wedding. I did a Jewish Scottish wedding. I did a gig down in Mexico for a promotion for some guy who wrote a book,” Lenihan said. “But that’s a long story.”

For the past 15 years, though, there is one gig Lenihan has been sure not to miss: playing outside local fire stations on Sept. 11.

Like many Americans on 9/11, Lenihan got a call to check the TV and remembers seeing “the smoke coming up and everything."

"And I remember the horror of it – 343 firefighters went into that building when everybody was coming out, and they all died," said Lenihan. "That's just wow.”

Lenihan, though, wasn’t just an American, he was a New Yorker. He felt the need to do something to honor those who died, particularly those firefighters. He looked to his bagpipes to help him do it.

"'I'm gonna pay homage to them and play the firehouses around here," he said.

So, every year for more than a decade, Lenihan has grabbed his bagpipes, donned his kilt and headed to his local fire stations. He doesn’t knock or announce himself, he just starts playing. 

His music is saying to the firefighters, "Thank you for your service." To the rest of us, it is saying, “Never forget.”

If firefighters are at the station and not on a call, they reflexively appear and stand at attention. Many thank Lenihan once he is done playing for this act of kindness.

Lenihan concedes that age is catching up with him a bit. Instead of his usual seven stations, he now only visits a handful. Still, he says as long as there is breath in his lungs and pipes in his hands, the tradition will endure. 

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