Haliburton’s piper led life filled with song
By Jenn Watt
Published April 10, 2018
The Cooper house is one brimming with music. When Saturday rolls around, if there are people in the building they’re likely on the fiddle, mandolin, piano or raising their voice in song.
Those who have met the Coopers usually mention music in some way either through the choir at St. George’s Anglican Church in Haliburton, visits to the Cooper home or Earl Cooper’s role with Haliburton Highlanders Pipes and Drums, which he co-founded in 1970.
On March 31, at the age of 91, Earl Cooper died in the home where he was born in West Guilford, surrounded by music.
Earl’s son George says his father’s first instrument was his grandmother’s pump organ when Earl was a teenager.
“His father Stan and brother Al were both very good fiddlers and they used to play for the dance hall down at Maple Lake where the airport is now,” George recalls. “But they needed somebody to put in the chording behind the fiddles. He learned to chord. Grandpa liked to tune the fiddle a half a tone down. Instead of chording on the white keys he had to learn chording on the black keys.”
The bagpipes came in 1943 when his brother Al returned home from the Rotary Youth Training Corps during the Second World War.
“At Christmas one year, Uncle Al came back with a set of bagpipes he was playing and the practice chanter. ... He left Dad with a practice chanter and two sheets of music. When Al came back at Easter, Dad could play those two [songs] on Al’s pipes. Both of them for a number of years would pipe various parades around the county. Al moved away and for a long time, Dad was the only piper in the county,” George says.
Then in 1970, Earl and Don Johnston came together to see if there was an appetite in the Highlands for a pipe band. They found there was interest, but not a lot of skill. In fact, no one knew how to play the bagpipes. They would be starting from scratch.
“I remember Dad commenting that we couldn’t even get uniforms until we figured out whether in fact we were teachable,” George says.
Turns out they were teachable and 18 months after putting out the first advertisement in search of members, the pipe band made its debut on the streets of Haliburton.
“I remember the first parade. We knew two tunes: Brown Haired Maiden and High Road to Gairloch. And we left the Legion, played Brown Haired Maiden and we probably got to about the post office and that was twice through the tune and we took a break and we went to the drum taps all the way down to Stedman’s and then we struck into High Road to Gairloch and we played that to the cenotaph,” he says.
Earl was pipe major “by default,” and relished his role as a teacher. He instructed the current pipe major, Andrew Mansfield.
“He was my inspiration to learn and taught me the bagpipes,” Mansfield recalls, “but it was the integrity of his character which will leave the most lasting impression. He believed in dedication and perseverance and led by example.”
Mansfield called Earl “kindness and patience personified” saying the band will continue forward honouring his example.
Although Earl’s life was permeated by music, he also had many other interests, vocations and a love of church and family. He met his wife Eleanor (nee Owens) in 1955 at a wedding dance.
Friends had told Eleanor, then a school teacher in West Guilford, that she might like to meet Earl, but the opportunity hadn’t yet presented itself.
“I happened to go to the wedding dance at the end of my first school year at Guilford and we spent a lot of time together over the next few months. They were quite right; all the nice things they had been saying about Earl, they were right,” Eleanor says. “The more time I spent with him, the more time I wanted to spend with him.”
The pair enjoyed music, dancing and Eleanor admired the kind way he spoke of other people.
They were married in 1957 and had four children: George, Alan, Elizabeth and Andrew.
During his lifetime, Earl worked as a farmer, for the Department of Highways, at the Hay and Company mill, co-owned a golf course, harvested tobacco and was a study hall supervisor at the high school. He was also a dedicated member of the Masonic Lodge.
Friend and fellow Mason Carman Coumbs says Earl was known for his patience, kindness and incredible memory. He was chosen as the “official prompter” in the Lodge, helping others with their work, without having to refer to a book for assistance.
“Earl has done just about everything in the Lodge and everything in the district that a Mason can do,” Coumbs says.
And even though there was plenty he could boast about, Coumbs says Earl was never like that.
“His ability as a piper, his ability as a member of the Lodge, the knowledge he had gathered over the years, he was very humble about it. All you had to do was talk to him for a few minutes to know the guy was a wealth of knowledge,” he says.
Earl’s motto in work and in life, Eleanor says, was to make things easier for those around him.
“I think he’s known as a person who liked to make other people’s work a little lighter,” she says.
When they were baling hay, Earl would instruct his sons to be careful in their work to ensure the next person in the process wasn’t burdened.
“If you do your job so the next guy’s job’s easier it’s better for everybody. I use that story a lot,” George says.
Earl loved hunting. He would attend the family hunt camp up by Kennisis Lake each fall and once they were old enough, his children would join him.
“It was just a magical place, just to be with Grandfather and all the uncles and Grandmother,” George says. “All the camaraderie, the family … again, music plays a big role there. The fiddles and mandolins at least twice a week.”
Church and faith was of utmost importance to Earl. Even if a Stanley Cup playoff game was happening on Sunday, church came first.
Rev. Canon Dr. David Barker remembers being welcomed into Earl and Eleanor’s home when he was first starting his career, working in Minden in the late 1970s.
“Earl and Eleanor were really involved with the church. It was not unusual for them to invite clergy, clearly lots of people were invited into their home,” Barker says. “We were made to feel happy, filled with music, lots of wonderful things like that.”
Later in life, David and his wife Shirley were looking to purchase land in the county and having little luck finding anything when a property came up in West Guilford.
“Just the name West Guilford brought back those warm memories,” he says.
Barker led the service for Earl at St. George’s Anglican Church in Haliburton on Friday, April 6. Hymns, speeches and Biblical passages were read to bring comfort and to pay homage to the life Earl lived.
During the ceremony, Barker noted that Earl had lived his life according to the tenets of his faith.
But that was never something he discussed much, Eleanor says: “He didn’t talk about it. He just lived it.”