DUNEDIN — He's been called a legend. One of a kind. An energetic and passionate proponent of all things Scottish.
Alexander "Sandy" Keith, longtime leader of the Dunedin City Pipe Band as well as director of the Dunedin middle school and high school piping and drumming programs, died unexpectedly early Thursday. He was 76.
"The essence of our Scottish tradition was on full display whenever Sandy was around," said former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth. "He really kept alive not only the piping, but the real Scottish heritage in every way."
Mr. Keith, born Jan. 19, 1936, in Scotland, told the Times in 2002 that he began piping at age 11 at the insistence of his grandfather: "I didn't want to play at first. But I'm sure glad I started."
As one of the earliest students at Scotland's College of Piping, Mr. Keith trained under several famous instructors, including Archie MacNeill, the famous blind piper, according to pipedrums.com.
At age 17, the website said, Mr. Keith moved to Canada, where he worked in the steel industry, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and became pipe major of the Erskine Pipe Band. He is credited with raising the band's profile and teaching several famous pipers. His influence was widespread: He was president of the Southern United States Pipe Band Association for many years and frequently a judge at competitions in the United States and Ontario.
Dunedin recruited Mr. Keith in 1982 to lead the city's piping and drumming program. He taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students before retiring in October after three decades. In 1998, the Dunedin pipe band came in second in the world piping championship in Scotland.
Music wasn't his only contribution to the Dunedin community. He was instrumental in organizing the popular Dunedin Highland Games and Spring Clan Gathering, the Military Tattoo and the Dunedin Celtic Festival.
"Sandy was practically an icon in the community for the Scottish heritage," said Dunedin City Manager Rob DiSpirito. "He really helped to raise the profile of Scottish heritage in this community tremendously through the years. He had not just a national but an international reputation that served us well in terms of attracting interest in Dunedin and promoting our programs."
Colleagues recall Mr. Keith as a no-nonsense perfectionist with a gruff exterior. But he was also quick to tell a joke in his thick Scottish brogue and passionate about working with children.
"He'd kind of drive you crazy because he didn't take himself or others too seriously," said former Dunedin Assistant City Manager Harry Gross, who was the city's parks division director when he met Mr. Keith in the mid-1980s. "But at the same time, he took what he did very seriously and made sure he did a good job of it."
Dunedin High School band director Ian Black called Mr. Keith a "fierce advocate" of piping whose expertise spanned generations.
"I know several students whose parents pipe and there's people in the community who'll come up during an event and ask about Sandy and they're Class of 70-something, and it blows you away," Black said. "It lets the students see that it is not just confined to these four years. It has a legacy that transcends them and will go on for much longer."
He said the mood at Dunedin High School turned somber Thursday as word of Mr. Keith's passing spread. Several students openly cried and, in the afternoon, the high school pipe band members visited the middle school to grieve with the younger band members.
Black, too, regarded Mr. Keith as a mentor who "knew what to say to me to get out of me what would make me the best, the same way he did with the students. It was a special talent he had that I don't think many people have."
Roberta Sefcik, 21, first met Mr. Keith a decade ago as a Dunedin Highlander Middle School sixth-grader. She fondly recalls how he quickly paired her with an older bagpiper, employing his motto that "if you know something, you have to teach it, and the more you teach the more you know."
Sefcik, who graduated in December from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in humanities and arts with a concentration in bagpiping, also credits Mr. Keith with influencing her life's work. The aspiring surgeon will begin medical school in June.
"I had really seen through bagpiping all the things music can do for health and medicine and all the way things are intertwined," she said. "He was a bagpipe teacher but he taught you so much more than bagpiping. He made us who we are for so many of us. He taught us all from such a young age. You met him in middle school and he just shaped what you became."
She added: "He was Dunedin. He was the best. You're not ever going to find another Mr. Keith, that's for sure."
Mr. Keith is survived by his wife, Mary; a son, Donald; a daughter, Heather; grandchildren, Daniel and Alexandra; a sister, Margaret Kraft of Vancouver, B.C.; and brothers William and Andrew Russell of Ontario. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]