The Luminaria ceremony is unquestionably one of the most moving segments of the Relay For Life, but few involved in the Franklin County event could even imagine it without the wail of the bagpipes that are at once mournful and uplifting and have become such an integral part of the ceremony.

Behind the pipes in Farmington is Robert Underwood, who has been piping for the Relay For Life’s Luminaria ceremony for all of the its 15 years in Farmington. He recalls the event being at the Farmington Fairgrounds its first few years and last year, it returned to the Fairgrounds. “It’s come full circle.”

The Luminaria ceremony features paper bags containing candles that are placed around the track and lighted. Each candle displays the name of a person who has survived cancer or has passed away from cancer, many featuring personalized decorations from family and friends. Once all the bags are lighted, the event lights are brought down and Underwood begins to play, his pipes calling everyone to the ceremony. He breaks while the names are read aloud and plays again between the two groups of names and the final closing. The event is emotional in and of itself, but add “Amazing Grace” and “Auld Lang Syne” on the bagpipes and there isn’t a dry eye on the track.

In his 41-year professional career as a physician’s assistant, Underwood spent a great deal of time in operating rooms and other medical settings, often taking care of people, patients as well as doctors, with cancer.

“When you deal with people with cancer, there is a dark cloud hanging overhead. There’s not a heck of a lot I, personally, can do,” he said. “Pipes are a very emotional instrument. It brings out the emotions in people one way or another.”

And so he pipes.

“It’s something that I can do. You want to do something. What can I do? Well, I can play the pipes. Maybe that will give a lift,” he said.

“And then, I became a survivor,” adds Underwood, wryly.

Since retiring from the medical field seven years ago, Underwood became “Bagpiper Bob,” a second career that he thoroughly enjoys. “The pipes have opened a lot of doors for me.”

In addition to the Relay, Underwood is well known for his performances in parades, at parties and at funerals.

Underwood took up the pipes in 1976, when his Shriner temple was looking to start up a pipe band. Of Scottish and Irish heritage, he grew up in a household full of music and singing around the piano. His grandmother, in fact, played piano at the silent movies.

He learned to play the bagpipes from masters from Irish and Scottish pipe bands in the British Isles. Eventually, he became the Kora Temple’s pipe major and held that post for 28 years, playing every year at notable statewide parades, particularly Memorial Day at Old Orchard Beach, where he played annually.

His young grandson, Aidan Underwood, wanted his grandfather to teach him to play. “I told him as soon as his fingers could reach the holes, I’d teach him.” Since then, Aidan has joined his grandfather in playing for commencement ceremoies at the University of Maine at Farmington and various community parades. While Aidan has also taken up the saxophone, Underwood points out that the saxophone won’t earn a living.

“The money is in the pipes,” he said.

And so is the lift.


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