Monday Profile: ‘Something that rang true’ for Gene Robertson
CRFR engineer celebrates firefighting, Scottish heritage through bagpipes
Two nights a week in the quiet town of New Castle, the unusual yet recognizable sound of bagpipes echo off Prendergast Hill, as the sun sets turning the sky orange and the mountains purple. The moon rises in the south-east as curious residents flip on their porch lights and trickle out into the night.
Behind the pipes is proud Scottish-American Gene Robertson; an engineer with the Colorado River Fire Rescue in New Castle. He wears a Class A piper uniform customized specifically for the fire service and donned with the Robertson clan plaid that matches the kilt.
“People were so intrigued about what I was doing; for me to be able to let me people know we are thinking about them,” Robertson said. “We really are all in this (global pandemic) together; I know that’s been said over and over again but it is true.”
A burning ambition
Robertson knew at a young age what he was destined to do‑drive a fire truck.
“My earliest memory of Christmas, I got a fire truck… As the imagination of a young boy runs wild, I always said to myself ‘I will be the driver of one of these someday,’” Robertson said.
Married at a young age, his primary goal for many years was to support his young family, something he felt couldn’t quite be done while fighting fires.
“Getting into the fire career is not an easy task, there’s a lot of education that goes behind it and family sacrifice involved and I couldn’t afford to do so at the time,” he said. “Once my son graduated high school and moved on to college I decided to pursue my fire career.”
Originally from San Diego, Robertson spent most of his young life in Pleasant Grove, Utah until moving to the Grand Junction area 23 years ago.
During his time in Utah he would often visit the fire stations to talk with fire fighters.
“They were always respectful to the community, always welcoming, so it just fueled my passion toward the fire service. I wanted to be part of that; I wanted to be bigger than myself,” he said.
He trained in-house with the Clifton Fire Department before being hired on and eventually transferring to CRFR in 2014.
Now as an engineer, he is doing what that young boy once said he would do; driving the fire truck.
However, the role as an engineer goes far beyond that. They must know their engine inside and out. They are responsible for safely getting the crew from the station to the scene of a fire or accident.
An engineer is also a senior firefighter and considered an informal leader.
“Being an informal leader, I feel as an engineer, I’m held with a responsibility to protect the guys, not only inside the fire that is at the end of that hose line but to protect them in their career development,” Robertson said.
Families that practice the traditional Scottish heritage have a family piper. This person announces the departure of a family member by playing the bagpipes during a specific time in a funeral.
“Eventually our family piper passed away,” Robertson said. “My cousin, who I grew up with, and his mother, my aunt, was pretty sad that there was no longer a family piper around. My aunt is direct from Scotland so it was pretty important to her. That moved me to pick up the piping.”
Initially with the hopes of perfecting it, Robertson only played one tune–Amazing Grace; the song that is played to honor a fallen family member.
Through fate, the opportunity to serve as an Honor Guard Commander with CRFR arose and Robertson knew without a doubt it was something he wanted to do.
“I’m a traditionalist and that was so appealing to me that it was not only supportive of me in my personal life but the fire service as well,” he said. “It’s not something that I was obligated into, it was something that rang true to me, that made sense.”
During the time that many Scottish immigrants were making their way to the United States, fire fighting and law enforcement were not jobs people often sought after and many Scots filled those roles.
“Before there were safe practices in place there were a lot of line of service deaths,” Robertson said. “The Scottish heritage brought that piping tradition with them.”
As Robertson continued into this new endeavor it grew quickly and without much resistance. He eventually picked up and learned a second tune called Going Home.
After a video featuring Robertson playing Amazing Grace and Going Home as a flag was lowered for a fallen Colorado State Trooper was sent to pipe major and Front Range Fire Department Chief Mike West, Robertson was invited to play with the Colorado Emerald Society.
The Emerald Society is a fraternal organization completely made up of law enforcement and fire fighters. Colorado has a chapter called the Colorado Emerald Society consisting of 75 registered members out of 24 different agencies. Robertson is the only member of the Western Slope as the other 74 are in the Denver area. Before the outbreak of COVID-19 the group got together to practice monthly.
“The Colorado Emerald Society’s primary goal is to be a line of service death band and there are select tunes that we all need to play together, so practice was a necessity,” Robertson said.
Around the end of March, Sunset Solidarity came into fruition as a way to continue practicing to hold that high level of standard when honoring those who have fallen in the line of duty.
It was not required but it was an idea that spoke to Robertson. He was hoping to also be a distraction for someone while in isolation and has been playing every night while on duty since March 20.
“When we started off with all of the isolations and quarantines, it didn’t do well with people’s mental health,” he said. “So to just go out and make a loud and proud noise to let them (frontline workers) know that the fire department is thinking of them. That was the goal behind Sunset Solidarity.”
CRFR Lt. Landon Churchill recently started working at the same station as Robertson and as the two got to know each other they discovered they both had the common interest of music playing. Churchill can be seen in a few of the Facebook videos posted by CRFR playing alongside Robertson during the Sunset Solidarity sessions.
“It was just a good way to bond and build some camaraderie on our crew which is pretty key in any team but especially in some of the dicey stuff that we get into,” Churchill said. “It’s important that you trust and like your team.”
Locally he has been playing for the Lakota Senior Housing facility located just behind the fire station;, giving them something to look forward to each week.
“Music is one of those things that are beautiful and we really can’t say why,” Churchill said. “Everybody can agree that a bagpipe playing on the hill at sunset is pretty cool and it doesn’t really matter where you come from or what you believe; everyone can agree with that and I think that’s a pretty powerful thing.”
Robertson has taken part in multiple appearances over the last several months in the hopes of being a positive distraction for the community during the global pandemic. Many of these appearances have been recorded and posted to Facebook on the CRFR page.
He has played during birthday brigades and for hospice patients at Valley View Hospital.
While playing for a hospice patient at his home in Glenwood, the man got up to get a better look while Robertson played. In doing so the man accidentally fell and injured his head.
“My immediate response was to dump the pipes and run over to help him get back up to his feet,” Robertson said. ”He was OK, we stood him up and I continued to play. I’m just glad that didn’t make it in a Facebook video because it’s a little awkward picking up a guy while wearing a kilt.”
Regardless of the mishap, the man was appreciative and Robertson was later invited to play outside of Valley View for other patients.
“Problem solving is half of what we do but the other more important half is the compassion part which is caring about people,” Churchill said. “To me it absolutely completes and demonstrates our mission when Gene does that (plays the bagpipes) because it’s part of what we do; show people that we care about them as people.”
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