The Bagpiper of DecaturThe bagpiper of Decatur - Henry Frantz performs at The Marlay for St. Patrick's Day, along with his wife, Fran, on tenor drums. Photo courtesy of Michelle Stroud.
By Dena Mellick, Associate editor
If you hear the sweet tones of a bagpipe in Decatur, it’s likely being played by Henry Frantz, Jr., Decatur’s unofficial bagpiper.
“I don’t know if Decatur has an official bagpiper, but I don’t know of any other bagpipers that actually live in the city of Decatur other than me,” Frantz said.
The 65-year-old Decatur resident is an attorney by day, but has been bagpiping since he was a teenager.
Frantz jokes about his German name, but explains his love of bagpiping was developed as a child growing up in Hong Kong. Frantz’s father was a Pan Am pilot, and Frantz attended a British school on the island, which was still a British colony when he lived there.
“There was all that pomp and circumstance in Hong Kong. … I met up with someone who played in a pipe band and it sort of drew me to it,” Frantz said.
Frantz was a founding member of the Atlanta Pipe Band, formed in 1970. The band has performed for dignitaries like Presidents Carter and Bush, Prince Charles, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Dalai Lama, according to its website.
“This November is our 45th anniversary,” Frantz said. “I’m the only remaining playing member of the founding years. That’s a long time actually. A lot of people moved out of town, quit, died, or lost interest. But I’m the only founding member that’s still playing with the band.”
In addition to playing at concerts, events, and competitions with the band, including the Stone Mountain Highland Games, Frantz plays as a solo act around Decatur and metro Atlanta.
He’s played at weddings, funerals, a bar mitzvah and lots of birthday parties. Frantz says he is also a fixture at Emory events, especially graduation.
“Back in 1986, I wrote a tune for Emory’s graduation that year, and they’ve been playing it ever since at graduation,” Frantz said. “The symphony brass plays it and the whole pipe band goes to Emory on Monday of graduation in the morning at 8 o’clock and plays on the quadrangle for the 10-15,000 people. … It’s called “The Emory and Old St. Andrews March.”
After they married, Frantz’s wife turned the solo act into a duo, often accompanying her husband on the tenor drums.
When Decaturish asked for her name, Frantz says, “Her name is Fran – don’t laugh! Fran Frantz!”
Her husband says Fran used to play with the pipe band, and currently plays with him at weddings and church services.
“It’s a very wise thing to do with your spouse,” Frantz said. “If you can do things together like that, it just deepens the relationship.”
The 65-year-old says it’s hard to pick a favorite event. “They’re like all your children. They’re different, but they are all special. I love to play at Emory ceremonies because colleges are generally happy places. It’s good to be around young people!”
Frantz says he even likes to play at funerals.
“People have to let go and for some reason, a lot of people and preachers think the pipes at a gravesite … helps to let go and is a letting-go facilitator. I know that I am performing something valuable in that instance,” he said.
Frantz and his wife played at a rainy Memorial Day ceremony at Decatur Cemetery in 2014.
Retired Decatur High School social studies teacher, Chris Billingsley, who organizes the ceremony, said having Frantz there was impactful.
“No matter what kind of weather is taking place, Henry appears in full bagpipe regalia, and along with his wife, Fran, provides beautiful music at the remembrance ceremony on Memorial Day,” Billingsley said. “He participates rain or shine. I recall one ceremony, as lightning strikes and thunderclaps took place and I was about to cancel, Henry appeared and convinced me to continue. He played ‘Amazing Grace,’ and as the rain began to fall, those present reflected on the sacrifice of the more than 50 soldiers buried in the cemetery that had given their lives so that we could live free.”
Billingsley also recalled that while he was still teaching, the community learned that two former Decatur High students had tragically passed away. Mourners gathered at Decatur First United Methodist Church before walking to Decatur Cemetery for the burial, where they stood near the pond.
“No one wanted to leave,” Billingsley remembered. “Suddenly the sounds of ‘Amazing Grace’ rang out from the hill overlooking the pond. There stood Henry playing the pipes. ‘Yea, when the flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.’ While playing the last stanza, Henry turned and began to walk away to the top of the hill. Eventually he disappeared, but the music continued.”
Billingsley said of that moment, “It was a sign that we too could walk away. I always felt that this was so important to the high school students. Instead of despair, students left with a feeling of hope. Henry’s performance helped students heal.
And for me, that is who Henry Frantz is, a healer. He is a Decatur treasure and we are lucky to have him and his wife as part of our community.”