Chuck Kirkwood, 84, of Barron, Wis., performs July 17 at a nursing home in Barron. Kirkwood has played taps at area military funeral services for about 70 years and has no plans to stop. (AP Photo (Chuck Rupnow / Eau Claire Leader-Telegram / AP)
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BARRON, WIS. — Chuck Kirkwood thought he was in trouble when he was called into the Barron High School office about 70 years ago.
Instead, he was asked to play taps for a military funeral. He accepted, and calculations are that he’s performed at about 3,500 funerals and counting, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported.
“I was never in the service, but I feel so indebted to those who serve,” said Kirkwood, 84. “I feel I don’t deserve a lot of credit for what I do. Those who have served and are serving should always be getting the honor — not me.”
It was 1943 when he was sent to the principal’s office, he said, recalling that high school band director Francis White recommended Kirkwood play taps at military ceremonies when the person who normally performed was not available.
“I’ve been playing at military funerals ever since,” Kirkwood said. “I’ve played for Veterans Day, Memorial Day, flag-raising ceremonies and a number of other events in Barron and many other communities around here. I enjoy it, but I have to say, I remember being a bit nervous that first time in high school.”
Kirkwood in recent years has kept a log of military services in which he’s performed. Based on an average of slightly more than 50 a year, he estimated he’s played in more than 3,500 such services.
Kirkwood started playing the trumpet in an effort to help his breathing.
“I had asthma real bad as a kid, and my dad (Charles) was a pharmacist in Barron. A doctor friend suggested that I play a horn to help my breathing,” Kirkwood said. “I started playing and haven’t quit.”
Kirkwood managed to play at military funerals even while doing mechanical work for 44 years for the Barron County Highway Department.
“When I first started doing it, I would take a couple hours of vacation, but then one of the other fellas I worked with talked to the Highway Committee and said Legionnaires weren’t getting docked when they went, so then I didn’t either,” Kirkwood said. “I would take my suit to my mother’s house, change clothes, play, change back and go back to work. I made up the time missed by working longer those days.”
It was his mother, Harriet, who persuaded Kirkwood to start keeping track of his military service performances.
Kirkwood also has played in several groups, beginning with the 720 Blues Orchestra while he was in high school. Other groups included the Barron VFW band, Bob Post Orchestra and 37 years with the 4-Aces. In 1993, he started performing at area nursing homes and became a regular fixture under the title Chuck Kirkwood and Friends.
One recent day, Kirkwood performed at the start of the Barron County Fair and was joined in the afternoon at Monroe Manor in Barron by pianist Lenore Berg of Barron, tuba player Ed Thompson and coronet player John Kirk. Berg has been playing for more than 60 years, while Kirk and Thompson are retired music instructors.
“We just have fun doing this,” Thompson said.
Kirkwood estimates he and others routinely play at about 25 area nursing homes.
“We’re supposed to be lifting their spirits, but they lift ours,” Kirkwood said, recalling when a woman at a Rice Lake nursing home hadn’t spoken for about three months but then started naming the songs the group was playing.
“It’s so nice to hear things like that.”
Shauna Otto, who handles activities at Monroe Manor, said Kirkwood and others who perform “are very important to the residents here. They enjoy their kind of music and look forward to it. They do such a good job, too.”
Kirkwood isn’t sure how long he’ll continue to perform.
“I said I will keep going until I miss more notes than I hit,” he said. “I feel good, and I enjoy doing it.”