COLONIAL HEIGHTS, Va. - For the last 25 years, First Sgt. Mike McCann has been patrolling the highways and byways of the commonwealth as a member of the Virginia State Police.
But when he's not wearing his trooper uniform, you might find him wearing a kilt. McCann plays the bagpipes. In fact, he's basically the official state piper.
"I didn't think it would take on the life that it has taken on," McCann told WTVR.
It can be a lot of fun, like when he plays an event like the Church Hill Irish Festival.
But it can also be a heart-wrenching experience, like when he's called upon to pay tribute to a fallen officer.
McCann has provided the somber soundtrack for a number of police funerals and memorial services, often playing the song that first got him started on this musical journey.
"I love the tune 'Amazing Grace' and I just wanted to play that, in my back yard," McCann said. "I got a book and a CD from the College of Pipers and I just sat down at home and started working on it."
The trooper taught himself to play, and practiced constantly. Before long, he was quite good.
Then came a request from a friend who was dying.
“The first person that ever asked me to do that [play the bagpipes at a funeral] was Lisa Roakes, my old boss,” McCann said.
At this point, the trooper with an Irish surname felt like playing the instrument most associated with Scotland was his calling.
So one day, after watching another piper get brought in to play a VSP event, he had an epiphany.
“I kind of had a desire to add that to my department’s Honor Guard,” McCann said.
And he wanted to be the one to fill that role. But not everyone was on board.
“It was not a welcome idea.”
But McCann persisted, and eventually, the VSP brass came around.
He would make one more request: that he be allowed to perform in uniform… with a kilt.
Despite some hesitation, that pitch would get the green light as well, and McCann’s second career officially began.
Like in most jobs, the assignments are not always pleasant. That’s never more true than when he has to perform at the funeral of an officer who has died in the line of duty.
“You know when we’re doing it, it`s a tough thing to do,” McCann said. “I’m there for those families, I’m there for those guys and girls that served and got cut down too early.”
But it can be difficult to keep his own emotions in check, especially when he knew the fallen officer.
In the last few years, McCann has played at the funerals of Master Trooper Junius Walker, who was shot and killed after he stopped to help a motorist; Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates and Lt. Jay Cullen, whose helicopter crashed while monitoring the violence in Charlottesville in August of 2017; and Special Agent Mike Walter, who was gunned down during a traffic stop in Richmond’s Mosby Court.
While synonymous with those sad farewells, they bagpipes can also be quite welcoming.
“I always tell people that we don`t just do funerals, we do a lot of things,” McCann said.
McCann is the pipe major for Metro Richmond Police Emerald Society’s band, which consists of pipers and drummers from several local law enforcement agencies.
“I would say he’s one of the biggest influences,” said tenor drummer Natalie Eckenrode.
In addition to funerals, the group performs at festivals across Central Virginia, and the reviews have been rave… mostly.
“A lot of people get emotional when they hear the pipes playing,” McCann said. “Others flat out hate it, I get that.”
Among those who love it is McCann’s own daughter, who joined the band four years ago.
She’s one of just many loyal followers this proud piper has amassed.
“I said if I had any success in this, that I would be there for people who need me until I didn’t have any breath anymore, and I`ve been able to do that,” McCann said.
And he’s got plenty of breath left, especially if the crowds continue to request “Amazing Grace.”