Born: Feb. 14, 1927
Though he loved working as a veterinarian, Dr. Wallace Gordon Diehl’s passion was playing bagpipes.
He founded one of the most popular bagpipe bands in the country, the Indianapolis 500 Gordon Pipers.
The band has performed before millions of spectators at local, state, national and international events, some of which include the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, the Daytona 500 and the U.S. Grand Prix.
The Indianapolis 500 Gordon Pipers also play for terminally ill children and their families and for veterans. For several years, the band was the opening act for rock star Rod Stewart. In 1969, the group made an appearance in the Paul Newman movie, “Winning.” The group has also played for countless funerals, weddings, birthday parties and parades.
Though “Doc” is no longer playing with the band, he is treated to the group’s talents at Brownsburg Meadows, where he is receiving care for Alzheimer’s disease.
There is no doubt he loves the music, said his wife, Marne Diehl, who said bagpipes have been part of their lives for more than 50 years.
“All of our children were pipers. They didn’t have a choice,” said Mrs. Diehl, laughing, thinking about those days.
The music is accentuated by loud band tones, harmony and the snare. “The music is marching music,” said Mrs. Diehl.
Dr. Diehl was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. After high school, he went to Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1950.
“That’s where our eyes met,” said Mrs. Diehl.
The couple married in 1949. They moved to Chicago, where he worked at a small animal hospital. He also worked as a vet in Detroit. He heard about a job at the Indianapolis Blue Cross Animal Hospital and took it. He later purchased the business, which was located at 910 N. Capitol Ave. He operated the hospital until he retired.
Though he was also busy with his business and growing family (the couple had five children), Dr. Diehl longed to experience the thrill of being a bagpiper.
“He always wanted to play the bagpipes. It had never worked out for him until we moved to Indianapolis, “said Mrs. Diehl.
To hone his skills, he made monthly trips from Indianapolis to Detroit to learn under the direction of world class piper George Duncan. He performed the next several years with the Murat Highlanders Bagpipe Band, but there were restrictions as to who could be a part of that band.
Wanting to include women and men who did not meet the 6 foot tall criteria of the Highlanders, he and a few fellow Highlanders (John Hudgins, Bill Cochran and Bill Simpson) in 1962 formed an unrestricted bagpipe band that would share the heritage of Scottish-Celtic culture. Articles in the local newspapers sought additional members. A few dozen turned out for the first meeting.
This was the beginning of the Gordon Pipers, a name chosen to honor the founder and pipe major of the new band. The Gordon Pipers became known as the Gasoline Alley Gordon Pipers and later the Indianapolis 500 Gordon Pipers. The pipers’ attire incorporates the Dress Gordon tartan; the drummers wear the Wallace tartan. Tartan is a pattern consisting of crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands in different colors. There are hundreds of patterns.
Bagpipe events were family affairs. The Diehls’ family time and fun times often included Gordon Pipers events. The group’s first big performance was for the Hoosier Grand Prix in June 1962. The performance so entertained and impressed the crowd, which included Tony Hulman, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the band was invited to entertain for the WFBM (now WIBC) Antique Auto Tour. This relationship with Hulman led to the band becoming the official bagpipers for the Indianapolis 500 and Hulman became the first honorary member. The band performs in the 500 Festival Parade.
Tragically, one of his sons, William, who was the pipe sergeant in the band, was killed in a plane accident in 1970.
Gordon Pipers continue to play today. They play a wide array of songs, including old favorites such as “Amazing Grace,” “When the Saints Come Marching In” and “Scotland the Brave.”
“The band is doing well,” said Mrs. Diehl. “A young man has taken the reigns and they will do well.”