Each year during National Police Week, a lone bagpiper appears at midnight at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, to play a tribute to the fallen heroes engraved on the Memorial's walls. Sadly, we must report that the original "Midnight Piper," Jimmy O'Connell, passed away earlier this week after a battle with brain cancer.
Reflecting on his death, NLEOMF Chairman and CEO Craig Floyd, said, “One of my favorite moments every year during National Police Week is the 'Midnight Piper.' Many of us gather at the Memorial late at night, and out of the quiet darkness steps the Midnight Piper to pay a solemn tribute to the 18,661 fallen heroes whose names grace the Memorial walls. Jimmy was the original Midnight Piper, and we are so grateful to him for this wonderful tradition that will now live on in his memory.”
Below is a tribute written by Kevin Taylor, past president of the Emerald Society of Illinois, entitled “Because I Was There,” honoring the life of Jim O'Connell and explaining the amazing origins of the “Midnight Piper."
On my first trip to Washington, D.C. for Police Week I was with Jim & Kelly O'Connell. Upon arrival in DC Jim and Kelly promptly headed over to the FOP hospitality area, and I told them I would meet them there because I was going to go to the Memorial. I had planned on paying my respects to my partner, Richard Clark, who had been killed in the line of duty. When I arrived at the Memorial, I looked up his name in the book, but when it came time to enter the Memorial itself I suddenly became overwhelmed with guilt over his death. I just could not bring myself to enter the Memorial, so I walked over to meet Jim and Kelly at the FOP. When I finally located Jim, he wanted to know how things went. I told him it was too difficult to go, and I would try again a little later. We eventually made it back to our hotel for dinner.
When we headed back towards the FOP, I decided to try again and headed to the Memorial to give it another try. Unfortunately, I was met with the same results. When I caught up with the O'Connells, they again asked how everything went. I told them that maybe we could all go together the next day, and I would probably have better luck. Later that same evening Jim had played his bagpipes with some other pipers at the FOP and we were all just kind of hanging out together. Just before midnight that night Jim O'Connell found me in the crowd. He grabbed me by the arm and said, "Come with me." I asked where we were going and he said, "I'm going to the Memorial, and I'm going to play the pipes for your partner and if you don't come in there then, then I give up!!"
We headed to the Memorial with Ed Kane (Pipe Major, Illinois ES) and both wives. Jim waited for me to find Rich's panel on the wall. He then walked to the center of the Memorial and began playing the bagpipes. He then walked to where I was standing and played Amazing Grace with Ed Kane playing (unplanned) seconds off in the distance. When we all rejoined again, we were all crying. Jim O'Connell then said, "What an Honor it was to do that," and that as long as he has air in his lungs he will play the pipes at the Memorial at midnight every time he is in DC.
It was purely coincidental that this occurred right at midnight. The name, "The Midnight Piper," was actually coined by the St. Paul Minnesota Emerald Society -- and they didn't even know it. We met Layne Lodmell (Minnesota Emerald Society) and company the next night. We were enjoying a beverage at the FOP and talking with them. Just before midnight they began checking their watches saying they didn't want to be late. We asked them what they were talking about. They said they didn't want to be late for "The Midnight Piper." Jim and I just looked at each other, smiled and asked, "What's The Midnight Piper?" They then went on to explain that one of the members of their group had two brothers on the wall. They had all gone to the Memorial the night before and that at midnight a bagpiper started playing and then ended his performance with Amazing Grace. They said that all of the people visiting the Memorial at that time had broken into tears and by the time anyone had regained their composure, the bagpiper and his friends had left.
Jimmy O'Connell (Illinois Emerald Society) made it a point to fulfill his original promise to play a tribute at midnight in memory of Chicago PD Ofc. Richard Clark, EOW April 3, 1986. Panel 19-W: 9, a tradition that has been going on since 1994.
Rest in Peace, Midnight Piper. You will be missed ... but you will always be remembered.
Update: James O'Connell's obituary published in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 26, 2010 can be viewed here, http://legacy.suntimes.com/obituaries/chicagosuntimes/obituary.aspx?n=james-m-oconnell&pid=138945523.