Beloved Bagpiper: Familiar Sight at Westminster Ceremonies is Unstoppable at 84

Many at Westminster are familiar with the slight figure of Westminster’s bagpiper who proudly leads the College’s convocation and commencement processionals, ceremonially sounding the beginning and ending of each academic year through her traditional Scottish Great Highland bagpipes.

Although Heather (Graham) Foote is highly recognizable in her red-and-black plaid kilt, crisp white blouse, matching white knee socks and sturdy black shoes, there is so much more to the Columbia, Missouri, resident than initially meets the eye.

The most startling fact that ultimately connects the dynamo 84-year-old to the College is her father, Wallace H. Graham, who served as President Harry Truman’s personal physician in the White House. His service to Truman began in 1945 during at the Potsdam Conference in Soviet-occupied Brandenburg, Germany.

Originally a combat surgeon in the 24th Evacuation Hospital in World War II who was part of the the 101st Airborne division, Graham remained with the Trumans as their family physician following the presidency.

“It was the history of Westminster ― Winston Churchill and President Truman ― that attracted me to playing the bagpipes there,” Foote says enthusiastically of the Missouri-born U.S. president who accompanied the former British prime minister to campus for his now-famous “Iron Curtain” speech.

But she emphasizes her current bagpiping duties on campus did not start until much later in life.

After returning to her native Kansas City from Washington, DC, in the 1950s, Foote attended the University of Kansas at Lawrence and then the University of Missouri-Columbia, earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1963.

She then married medical student Jerry Foote, a life decision that led to the next startling fact about Foote that solidifies her relationship to Westminster: She gave birth to three boys ― all graduates of Westminster College: Kyle, ’87 ΒΘΠ; Bryan, ’94 ΒΘΠ; and Greg Foote, ’96 ΒΘΠ.

The family moved a few times throughout Jerry’s training in dermatology, ultimately settling for 50 years in Columbia, where she practiced nursing at Boone Hospital. Foote’s career, however, was only part of her identity. She explains that her true calling really began after retirement.

“I got into creating things … I went to the library and checked out books on sculpting. That was 40 years ago, and now I enter things in shows and have gotten many awards, including Best in Show,” she reflects. “So I’ve asked myself: Am I an artist? And the answer is yes. I am.”

The nurse-turned-sculptor also taught Shape Up for Life classes at nursing homes and dabbled in oil painting, classical guitar, figure skating, martial arts and dance lessons before eyeing an adult education bulletin that listed bagpiping lessons with the Boone County Fire Protection District.

That was almost 25 years ago, and like her other pursuits, Foote passionately threw herself into the hobby. Many lessons and public marching events ensued before Graham felt confident in her new skill, but she emerged quite proficient.

Then about 16 years ago, Westminster’s then-bagpiper, Boone County Assistant Fire Chief Ken Hines, told the other pipers that the Hill at Westminster was a killer. Foote recalls he said, “That’s too much piping for me. Who wants to do Westminster?”

The rest is history, and Graham is proud of it. She lives by the motto, “There’s a time and place for everything,” and for now, her place remains at the College that is proud of its bagpiper who marches in front of the grand marshal and Skulls of Seven during major processionals, stopping traffic on Seventh Street and capturing the collective admiration of passersby.

“Every year I say it’s going to be my last one, because it’s a bugaboo walking up that hill,” she says with a chuckle, adding that she really does not like to admit her age because people might think she is too old for the activities she enjoys. Graham finally declares, “I’m always the oldest one wherever I go, and it’s fine.”

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Sarah Rummel Backer

Sarah Rummel Backer is the Director of Media Relations and Senior Writer at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. A proud Westminster graduate, Sarah has more than 20 years of experience in marketing and strategic communications in the areas of higher education, medicine, agriculture, and the private business sector.