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November 20, 2013

Bugler at President Kennedy’s Funeral Remembered 50 Years Later

by Deborah Block

Military and state funerals include the playing of Taps, usually by a lone bugler. There is a shortage of buglers today, however, so the solemn music often is performed on other instruments or even from a recording. Fifty years ago, the world experienced the emotional power of Taps being played, as President John F. Kennedy was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. This week, a group called Taps for Veterans honored the man who played Taps at that ceremony, in the process, highlighting the importance of buglers.

At Arlington National Cemetery, a bugler plays Taps at the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death. The event also honored Army Sergeant Keith Clark, who played the solemn melody at the president’s funeral. Clark was an experienced and polished musician, who faltered once during the 24-note piece.

To some it was a flawed performance, but to others, it sounded mournful and reflected the sadness of the nation.  

Bugler honored

Clark died several years ago. But members of his family came to the commemoration, including his 90-year-old wife, Marjorie.

“Well, we looked at it as a normal mistake a trumpeter can make, combined with the cold and the pressure and the length of time he had to stand,” she said.

Afterward, Sergeant Clark received letters of support, including from Eddie Hunter, who was then a 10-year-old learning to play the trumpet. Clark wrote back. Today, Hunter meets members of Clark’s family for the first time.  

“Being here, it’s a little bit overwhelming, it’s very emotional for me and to meet Sergeant Clark’s family. It’s just great,” said Hunter.

The tribute was led by retired military bugler Jari Villanueva. He’s with Taps for Veterans, a group that finds and arranges for buglers to perform Taps at military funerals and ceremonies. He said it's sometimes difficult.

“The military has been downsizing, and as a result of that downsizing, military bands have been cut. So there’s a lack of active duty military buglers to sound taps at funerals,” said Villanueva.

Storied song

Taps was first played during the American Civil War 150 years ago. A general wanted a different lights out call for the troops.

"The general was not very pleased with the call that was being sounded and decided to change it. What he did was to revise an earlier bugle call into these 24 notes that we know today as Taps. And it soon caught on as a bugle call of the evening and then became used at military funerals," said Villanueva.

David Michel plays bugle at Civil War re-enactments and wants to preserve the tradition of Taps. “That’s why so many civilian horn players are trying to take up the call to fill the gap for important ceremonies, for the burial of veterans, and other things as well.”

Villanueva said Taps isn’t the same without the bugle. “When you have a live bugler sounding taps, it’s a piece of music that actually comes from the heart and a recording just can’t really replicate that sound.”

That sound brings him to tears, said bugler and military policeman, Gregory Simms, expressing a sentiment held by many.

“It is possibly one of the most stirring pieces of music I’ve ever heard,” he said.