WILLMAR -- When the final rifle volley of the American Legion honor guard fades into silence, it's the sign for Delbert Schueller to raise his trumpet to his lips for the playing of taps.
Schueller, 81, has performed this poignant graveside ritual hundreds of times for deceased Willmar-area veterans and their surviving families.
And it's meaningful every single time, said Schueller, a 1950s-era veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
"I play it like it's the first time I ever played it, because each time it's the first time for that family," he said.
Schueller has been a volunteer trumpet player with the Willmar American Legion's honor guard since 2003.
He and his wife, Jean, conservatively estimate that he's played taps at more than 500 funerals -- sometimes two or three times in the same week.
In January 2010 he played taps four times in one week at four different funerals. That same month he played the traditional farewell at two funerals on the same day.
This past March, the Willmar Eagles recognized Schueller's lifetime of volunteering by giving him the annual Humanitarian Award.
For many veterans' families, the sound of the simple, mournful notes of taps is often one of the most touching parts of the graveside ceremony, said Wayne Emberland, commander of the Legion honor guard.
"It's a meaningful thing," he said.
The origin of taps lies in a bugle call used by the U.S. military in the 1800s, before the Civil War. Daniel Butterfield, brigadier general with the Union Army, is generally given credit for arranging the melody in its present form.
Taps was officially recognized by the U.S. Army in 1874 as the signal for "lights out" and the end of the day. But it wasn't until 1891 that it also became the traditional conclusion for military funerals. Today the haunting tune is sounded thousands of times a year, from wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va., to cemeteries in cities and small towns across the United States.
All told, Schueller has been playing taps for more than 60 years, starting in the early 1950s while stationed with the Air Force in Panama. A trumpet player since childhood, he's an accomplished musician; he auditioned and was accepted into the prestigious 702nd Air Force Band.
"It was an honor for a little farm boy to be with that group," he said.
He later taught school in Morton, sold musical instruments and for many years was co-owner of The Music Store in Willmar and Redwood Falls.
Retirement gave him a chance to start volunteering much more often as a taps player, mostly with the Willmar American Legion honor guard but also for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other organizations from time to time.
Until then, the Legion honor guard didn't have a trumpeter it could regularly rely on, Emberland said. "I always had to call around and find one. This made it so much easier. He's been fantastic. When he does it, it's very well-done."
The Legion post occasionally calls on other trumpeters but Schueller is "our main one by far," Emberland said. "If he's able, he's there, rain or shine. We really appreciate him."
So do families, who often call afterward or send a personal note of thanks.
Schueller said he tries to bring feeling, meaning and dignity to the music each time he plays. "It's tough, especially when everybody's breaking down and you still have a few notes to play," he said.
He hopes to keep it up "until I conk out."
"I feel honored at my age to be able to do what I'm doing and feel as good about it today as I did the first time playing it," he said.