Witt offers final tribute to fallen soldiers

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Local veterans salute as Fort Scott resident Jerry Witt plays "Taps" during the Veteran's Day service Nov. 11 at Memorial Hall. (Michael Pommier/Tribune)

Editor's Note: This is part two of a pair of articles profiling Steve Harry and Jerry Witt who have been playing Taps for a variety of military services and funerals for many years.

From John F. Kennedy to soldiers from the war in Iraq, Fort Scott resident Jerry Witt has played "Taps" at quite a few services in the last 52 years.

Witt began playing "Taps" at military funeral services when he was a sophomore in high school. He said he remembers the teachers being very gracious in allowing him to leave his books while he quietly left class to play at a funeral and then return to school.

Jerry Witt stands in silence before playing 'Taps' at a memorial service for John F. Kennedy in Fort Scott on Nov. 25, 1963. (Submitted Photo)

"I've always joked that I did it for two reasons: It got me out of school and the funeral directors paid me $5, ... but it is a real honor and I've been doing it all my life," he said.

Since 1958, Witt has played "Taps" at nearly every cemetery in Bourbon County and one thing always stands out to him at every service -- the emotion.

"As I blow Taps, I can see how that is a very emotional time for the families," he said.

Witt said one of his most memorable experiences playing "Taps" was on Nov. 25, 1963. Just two months back from mortuary college, Witt was asked to play the tune for a memorial service in Fort Scott honoring the late President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just three days earlier.

Witt said he regrets the fact that he has no military experience. When he was younger, he would check in with the recruitment office regularly to see if his number was coming up, but was always told no. He was later deferred when he attended college, then again when he got married, and a third time when his first child was born.

"I was just ahead of the curve, and when I checked, they didn't need me because things were winding down in Vietnam around that time," he said.

Despite his lack of military experience, Witt said he feels his playing is the last patriotic act to honor a fallen veteran before the presentation of the flag to the family.

"It's more or less the final tribute to a fallen veteran," he said.

Witt's musical experience stems from a love of playing his trumpet. He took lessons through grade school, then participated in the band from middle school through college. In addition, he led the music at Community Christian Church for 25 years.

As he gets older, Witt realizes that times are beginning to change as fewer trumpeters and buglers are volunteering. Because of the decrease, an electronic recording device has been developed which can be placed in a bugle or trumpet to play the familiar melody, penned by Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield in July 1862.

As long as he is able, Witt said he will continue to play and honor those who have served their country.

"We're moving into an era where there are fewer buglers, and so they've developed the electronic horn version of 'Taps' ... and I know that some day that will be all that will be used," he said. "But on the services I am able to be there and play, I would rather honor people with a live version of it."