Ackerman+Gruber for Reader's Digest
The commuters in Excelsior, Minnesota, are too busy rushing to work to notice the lone figure climbing up to old Oak Hill Cemetery. He is a tanned, gray-haired man in khakis and a golf shirt, and he is walking deliberately. Gary Marquardt spots a grave with an American flag on it, raises his trumpet, and plays.
“I love to hear taps echo through the cemetery,” he says. “I’m doing something for these guys. It’s kind of like being among friends.”
Gary will repeat the routine a dozen times over the next 45 minutes: finding a veteran, saying his name, and then playing taps.
“I always think about the funeral, the people standing around here, so sad at the loss of their loved one, and then it’s over and you’re left with this,” Gary says, looking down at a grave.
The cemetery visits started three years ago, after Gary attended the military funeral of a friend’s father, who had served during World War II. It bothered Gary that a recording was being used for taps and not a live bugler. “It just seemed that after what they’ve given, an actual person playing taps wasn’t much to ask for,” he says.
There was only one problem: Gary had never played a bugle. He called Bugles Across America (BAA), an organization that provides buglers for military funerals. They told him he would need to audition. So he walked into a music store and bought a horn. Then he started to practice.
“It was awful,” says Gary’s wife, Joanie Marquardt, with a laugh.
The Marquardts’ neighbors, Bruce and Carol Hedblom, were exposed to Gary’s playing too. “No inhibitions,” Bruce says diplomatically.
“I would have given up,” adds Carol. Instead, Gary took lessons. “We were all hoping he would get better,” says Joanie. “And then he did.” He even passed his audition (on the third try).
Through BAA, Gary volunteers at funerals roughly a hundred times a year. “I don’t play perfect every time,” he says. “But it comes from the heart.” When he’s not playing a funeral, he’s often found at local cemeteries honoring veterans. Be they Civil War–era soldiers or casualties of more recent conflicts, he always leaves a penny on each stone, symbolizing the pittance of his service compared with theirs.
But why so committed? Turns out Gary—now 68 and comfortably retired after selling his document services company—got a pass in his 20s. He was all but certain he’d be heading to Vietnam after college, until a bleeding ulcer intervened.
“I collapsed at work,” he says. “And all of a sudden I was 4-F.”
4-F: unfit to serve.
Gary’s father had served during World War II and some of his high school friends had already died in Vietnam, but Gary was suddenly freed of his obligation.
“I think ashamed is the word,” he says. “I was ashamed I was happy I didn’t have to go.”
Not a day goes by that Gary does not play taps. Every evening, as the sun sets over his lakeside home, he walks to the railing of his deck and points his horn toward the water.
His neighbors no longer close their windows. In fact, they stop what they’re doing, stand at attention, and listen. On some nights, neighbor Alan Greene emerges on his deck to accompany Gary on his flute. “It’s a last call; it’s daily rest,” says Gary. “It’s a prayer.