This is one of an occasional Prime Time series highlighting volunteers.
WARREN - After 30 years as a band director, Garey L. Watson of Cortland now spends time as a bugler honoring deceased veterans at their funerals.
Watson serves as the bugler with the Trumbull County American Legion Honor Guard, which provides special military tributes at veterans' funerals, and has already played more than 80 this year.
Tribune Chronicle / Bob Coupland
Garey L. Watson of Cortland plays taps recently at Oakview Cemetery in Warren. Watson has played for at least 80 veterans’ funerals so far just this year — in 2010, there were 234.
Watson, 63, a Youngstown State University Dana School of Music graduate, retired in 2000 as a music teacher and band director from Grand Valley Schools and Cardinal Middlefield Schools, working 15 years in both districts.
"I was ready for retirement and decided I wanted to do some military funerals. I had done some over the years and worked with the VFW and American Legion while I was teaching and got some students who would also play taps at military funerals," he said.
Watson also joined Buglers Across America, a national group that provides live buglers for military funerals.
Preserving the live performance
A recent news article reported that buglers to play taps for military funerals are in short supply at a time when the need for people who can perform this solemn duty is very high, says Tom Day, founder of the volunteer group Bugles Across America.
In addition to casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aging veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam are dying. Bugles Across America has about 7,130 volunteers, which still leaves many funerals dependent on recordings.
Day said he founded Bugles Across America shortly after Congress passed a law in 2000 allowing recordings of taps to be played if no bugler can be found. Bugles Across America works with high schools and universities to recruit student musicians to play at funerals.
Source: Buglers Across America
In 2002, the American Legion Honor Guard heard Watson playing at a funeral.
"I started with the Honor Guard by accident. I was called to play at a funeral for a friend who had died, and the Honor Guard was there. When it was done, they came over and told me that they had another funeral tomorrow and asked me if I would be available to play. They were just using a boom box to play taps at that time.
"They asked me to join them at a funeral in Johnston, and I said yes and have been with them since," Watson said.
For the majority of the funerals he attends, he's there to play taps. He played 234 in 2010 and 80 so far in 2011.
Watson said he did not serve in the military and it is his way of honoring the veterans.
After graduating from college, Watson said he started teaching when he received his draft notice and was destined to go since they were not giving out deferments for teachers.
"My father had a stroke and was paralyzed, and as the sole surviving son contributing to the finances of the family, I did not have to go,'' Watson said.
After his father died, the Vietnam War was dying down, and Watson said he was getting older and no longer needed.
The rest of the Honor Guard members are veterans.
Watson has several trumpets and also performs with the Warren Brass Quartet at churches, weddings, Christmas and Easter concerts, and with the Cortland Community Band.
Watson said he does get recognized once in awhile, but he said because he is the background playing at the funeral, he doesn't get noticed as much.
Watson also helps the American Legion serving as one of the chaplains for the Honor Guard.
"I am proud of everything I do with the American Legion," he said,
Most of the funerals the Honor Guard is doing now are for World War II veterans. Watson also puts together the special folders on the veterans for the funeral service.
"I am busier now more than I ever thought I would be. This is a different type of busy after 30 years of teaching high school and junior high band and getting up at 6:30 a.m.," he said,
The Honor Guard averages sometimes four funerals in one day any day of the week. He plays taps after the gun salute and is among nine who attend from the Honor Guard.
The Honor Guard performs mainly in Trumbull and Mahoning counties and in Pennsylvania, Geauga and Ashtabula counties.
Watson said Roger Gardner, commander of the American Legion Post 540 and Trumbull Honor Guard, lets him know what the schedule of funerals will be after he is notified by the funeral homes.
"We have done four in one day. It is quite common to do two a day.''
Watson also has an Honor Guard outfit he wears.
For the special folders, Watson cuts out the obituary and creates a personalized folder for the deceased veteran.
Gardner said, ''He does a fantastic job and is very dedicated to being at the veterans' funerals. We are honored to have him.''
Gardner said since 2001, there have been 1,750 funerals they have been at and noted Watson has been at the majority.
''He is with us at Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Pearl Harbor Day and when we do programs in the schools,'' he said.
''We are veterans honoring veterans. He honors them with his music,'' Gardner said.