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Columbia Missourian

Paul Hobbs gives back to veterans with his bugle

By Sam Gause
March 27, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Paul Hobbs practices taps on the bugle outside his home in Columbia on March 7. After attending several funerals of relatives where taps was played from a recording, Hobbs, a Navy veteran, decided to pick up the bugle again after 50 years. He wanted to be able to play taps live and give veterans the honor he thought they were due.

COLUMBIA — Paul Hobbs brings his bugle to his lips.

Slowly, deliberately, he begins to play the melancholy notes of taps, perhaps the most recognizable song in America.

The small crowd falls silent as the melody rises, filling the room. Hobbs glides softly from note to note, staying true to the solemn mood.

He draws out the last measure, then lowers the bugle with a formal snap. The crowd remains hushed and respectful for at least another minute.

For the 69-year-old Hobbs, playing taps at the funerals and memorials of fallen soldiers is a way he gives thanks for their dedication to the country.

"Being able to honor someone that has served our country gives me an incredible sense of pride," he says.

On this day in January, he was asked to play during the opening of a memorial exhibit at the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The touring exhibit, "Remembering Our Fallen," is a collection of photographs of the 140 Missouri veterans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Family members were invited to honor the soldiers and write messages next to the images.

As a member of the Missouri Patriot Guard, Hobbs has been witness to many of these soldiers' burials. The guard provides security and support for military ceremonies.

A Navy veteran himself, Hobbs feels strongly that his service has not yet been completed. A trumpet player in high school, he feels even more strongly that a live musician should close a military funeral with the ritual of taps.

Buglers in short supply

Hobbs became an advocate when he attended the funeral of a cousin, an Army veteran who died almost four years ago.  After the traditional gun salute, one of the riflemen stepped out of line and  leaned over to press the button on a cassette player.

"It was not right," he recalled. "Where was the bugler?”

It happened again at two more funerals of family members who had served in the armed forces.

“Now I was really bothered," he said, "and it just started eating away at me.”

He began to actively look for a way to help and discovered Bugles Across America.

The number of aging veterans, combined with casualties in recent years, has put a strain on the nation's available buglers. In 2003, the Pentagon approved use of a digital bugle — known as a ceremonial bugle — which uses a computerized chip inside the horn.

Bugles Across America was founded in 2000 by volunteers willing to step forward to give soldiers an authentic final salute. The organization has since grown to 7,500 members across 50 states.

After Hobbs joined, he dug his old trumpet out of a closet and vowed to perform whenever he was asked. 

"I am doing something that should be done," he said. "In knowing that I have the ability to play, I could never sit back and not do it."

Taps has a long history

According to Jari Villanueva, a retired military bugler, taps has been around since the Civil War. The call originated as a signal for lights out.

Because of its slow tempo, it was eventually adopted for military funerals. In December 2012, Congress passed a resolution designating taps as the National Song of Remembrance

Hobbs played trumpet in band during high school in Pittsburgh, Pa., abandoned it when he left home but continued to carry the instrument with him.

Joining Bugles Across America prompted him to take his worn, tarnished trumpet out of its case, clean it up and start to play.

“It was just like starting over,” Hobbs said. “We’re talking a 50-year gap.”

After practicing for three months, he called up a representative in Warsaw, Mo., and said he was ready for an audition.

He performed over the phone and became certified. Hobbs has since played taps at nine funerals and 15 memorial services.

“I am quite proud to be involved in Bugles Across America,” he said. “I might not always play perfectly, but it’s live and from the heart.”

Kevin Oath, a minister with close family ties to the military, said taps adds a powerful ending to funerals.

"It is always such an emotional time," he said, "and when you hear those notes you get this chill and the emotion just rises up within you."

It's not easy to play

Taps is notoriously difficult to play. What makes the song challenging has little to do with the tune or the technical aspects of the horn.

"A bugler is playing in front of a lot of people at a very emotional time," said Villanueva, who has sounded taps thousands of times.  

This was painfully clear during the funeral of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 25, 1963. Kennedy had been a decorated Navy officer during World War II, who famously refused to surrender in 1943 during a Japanese attack on his ship, the PT-109.

His burial took place on a cold winter day in Arlington National Cemetery. Counting those gathered and those watching on a national broadcast, it was arguably the largest audience for a rendition of taps.

The principal bugler for the U.S. Army Band began to play. On the the sixth note,  he faltered. The note cracked. 

"It's 24 notes," Hobbs said, "maybe the hardest 24 notes you'll ever play."

He knows all too well the pressure and anxiety of performing alone during an emotional moment, often in uncertain weather conditions.  

“You’ve got the temperature as a factor,” he said. “The bugle is cold and your lips are cold, not a good combination.

“And you’re nervous,” he added. “When it’s time to sound that first note, every ear is on me."

Taps is also layered with history, ritual and emotion.

"You can’t make a mistake when you’re playing to honor someone."

Family inspired his service

Hobbs grew up with a family rich with military connections. He had two uncles in the Navy. Close relatives, they would often watch war movies together and sometimes told stories about the Pacific Theater during World War II.

They always emphasized their pride of being in the service. Their influence had an impact on the boy.

“Ever since I was a kid, I was going to be a submarine sailor,” he said.

After high school, he joined the Navy. His first assignment was on a nuclear submarine, the USS Thomas Jefferson, where he served for two years.

“When I got my orders I was tickled pink,” he said, “I had reached my dream.”

For Hobbs, this meant long periods away from him family with virtually no communication. Balancing the isolation was the thrill of the assignment. The Navy depended on submarines to act as a deterrent during the Cold War.

“We didn’t get to see a lot of the world being under the water,” he said, “but it was a fantastic group of shipmates. I still communicate with some of them."

From the Navy to Fulton

The Navy sent Hobbs to advanced electronics school, and when he left the service, he was set up with a career in nuclear energy. That career led him to the Callaway Nuclear Generating Station near Fulton for a job and to MU to earn a mechanical engineering degree. The degree led to a 20-year engineering career at the Callaway plant.

He retired in April 1999 and quickly realized that he had time to give back.

Along with Bugles Across America, Hobbs also works at the Columbia American Legion where he serves as first vice commander, the Patriot Guard Riders and Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital.

His wife, Jan, a former nurse and health care assistant, works with the Quilts of Valor where she sews together military-branch-specific quilts.

For him, playing taps is different from his other veteran-related vocations. As a part of the other organizations he works as one part of a whole. His jobs always seem small. At funerals and memorial services, he has a chance to pay tribute to heroes. 

"I see how my playing can stir emotions and help people remember their loved ones and it means so much to me," he said. 

"It all comes from me, and from my heart."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.