Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Death on St Patrick's Day

An affecting story in the NY Times yesterday.

I hesitate to comment; one never quite knows any more what's going to offend. But I found it a story with a happy ending. Drummer Dunne's was a death worth envying: on St Patrick's Day, with the sound of the pipes in his ears, and the priest next to him to absolve and anoint. You could do a lot worse.

Published: March 18, 2009

It was customary for Michael Conway, a 64-year-old drum major, to look back at his bagpipers and drummers as he led them on parades, lest he march too far ahead.

In those fleeting moments, Mr. Conway’s eyes always rested briefly on a tall, burly man at the back: Steven Dunne, a drummer who, along with Mr. Conway, had been part of the Police Pipes and Drums of Bergen County nearly since its inception, 17 years ago.

On Tuesday around noon, just after the band passed 75th Street on its march up Fifth Avenue as part of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Mr. Conway glanced back and saw that Mr. Dunne was not there.

“I turned, I didn’t see him, and then I saw everyone rushing to the center of the avenue,” Mr. Conway recalled, speaking from his home in Ridgefield Park, N.J.

Mr. Dunne, 59, a 6-foot-2-inch retired Bronx court officer whom fellow band members called Stevie, died of a heart attack after collapsing on the parade route, an hour after his band started marching, and 11 blocks before the end point.

He had no wife or children, and lived with his cats in a simple two-story brick house in the Bronx. He was a frugal man, his sister, Bonnie Dunne-Martin, said, but last spring treated himself to a 2008 silver Mustang, which was sitting in his driveway on Wednesday with a sign that read Police Pipe Band in the window.

For Ms. Dunne-Martin, who lives in Florida but flew up for the funeral, which is scheduled for Saturday, the manner of her brother’s death was surprising but oddly appropriate. “It’s upsetting,” she said. “But when you think about it, what a way to go.” He had no history of heart trouble, she said.

Mr. Dunne’s death devastated fellow band members, current and retired firefighters and law officers who wept a little on Tuesday as they gathered at an East Side pub to toast their friend.

“The place just shook,” Mr. Conway said. “My guys are tough guys, they’re cops, but when you lose a friend, it hurts.”

Mr. Dunne grew up in Washington Heights in an Irish family committed to public service and city work. His father was a police officer, and his older brother, Peter Dunne, is a retired New York City police sergeant. Ms. Dunne-Martin, now retired, worked at the Department of Probation for 25 years, and the youngest brother, Robert Dunne, worked with the Sanitation Department for 25 years.

Steven Dunne adored Irish music and culture, and he played with a band of court officers before joining the Bergen Pipes band in 1992, after meeting its founders through friends.

The band is nearly four dozen strong, and Mr. Dunne became something of its star performer sometime around 1995.

The band was playing at an auditorium in Cleveland when the neck strap holding Mr. Dunne’s drum broke. The drum fell to the floor and bounced back up. Mr. Dunne neatly caught it with one hand, and continued playing with the other. He did not miss a beat.

“For that,” Mr. Conway said, “he was almost a hero in Cleveland.”

Mr. Dunne took a break from the band after developing knee problems about eight years ago, but started again about 2005. He switched instruments, from the weighty bass drum — “a young man’s instrument,” Mr. Conway said — to the smaller, lighter tenor drum.

After that, he rarely missed a rehearsal. Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., he would be there, at the Elks Lodge on Route 17 in Paramus, N.J., ready to drum.

The Police Pipes and Drums of Bergen County plays at police funerals and graduations from police academies, usually performing about 60 times a year.

Tuesday was a gorgeous, sun-filled day in New York, and everything was going perfectly, until the band passed 75th Street.

When Mr. Dunne fell, he pitched forward, slumping over his drum before hitting the ground. Band members, all seasoned rescue workers, knew what to do. Two began working furiously on Mr. Dunne, pumping his chest and breathing into his mouth, as the others formed a circle to shield him from the crowd. An ambulance arrived, but Mr. Dunne was not breathing, and a chaplain who had been marching in the parade administered last rites. He was pronounced dead at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center.

The band finished the parade in Mr. Dunne’s honor. Then they went to Haven, a pub and restaurant on East 51st Street. They carried in Mr. Dunne’s drum, his sticks crossed on top of it, placed there along with his hat. A bagpiper led the way.

The men all ordered Guinness, which Mr. Dunne loved, and raised their pints in salute to him, and his drum.

God rest his soul.


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