When a veteran passes away, the U.S. Department of Defense honors their service with a military funeral. The honors ceremony includes folding and presenting an American flag and the playing of taps.
For more than 75 years in Cherokee County, Iowa, this important ceremony almost always includes the same Siouxland man.
“I’ve just been doing it most of my life,” Bob Conley said.
His love for the trumpet started in the 8th grade, when Bob Conley joined the Cherokee High School band. It’s a passion that turned into a part-time profession. From the 1950s until about 1980, the Bob Conley band was well known all over northwest Iowa.
“We played all the ballrooms around, we played high school proms, youth dances, we used to play four, five, even six times a week,” Conley said.
That was in addition to his fulltime job doing the books for Lindell construction.
“That was just a short job that only lasted 58 years,” he said.
All the while continuing his love for music, even inspiring one of his four boys to follow in his footsteps.
“One of my sons was a high school band director, he’s retired, matter of fact all four of them are retired,” Conley said.
His sons all retiring before he did. The 91-year-old is now only in his second year of a retirement.
“Where he worked at, I don’t think he ever called in sick a day. He’s pretty dedicated,” Cherokee’s VFW Commander Ed Boger said.
A dedication that continues to show through in one of his life’s biggest commitments.
“The first time was in 1943, the first time I played taps,” Conley said.
It started as a welcome break from school.
“That was a good deal, I’d get out of school, go to the cemetery and play taps, go down to the church for lunch and I’d miss a half day of school,” he said.
But now, after 76 years, playing taps has become his namesake.
“I don’t think there’s anyone around that hasn’t heard that he plays taps,” Boger said.
Conley plays taps at roughly 50 military funerals in Cherokee County each year; something he’s done since 1943. He’s only missed a handful a military funerals in all of those years.
“I think he only missed two in the past 10 years,” Boger said.
Even during his three years of service in the Navy, Conley still played taps whenever he was back home in Cherokee.
“After I got back and lived here, had a full time job, I played for all of them,” he said. “You kind of see the cemetery grow you know over the years, especially when you’ve been out there that long.”
Now at age 91, Conley is still committed to playing his fellow veterans their final goodbye.
“He knows probably 95 percent of the people he’s played taps for,” Cherokee Color guard director Steve Reinhart said.
He and other color guard volunteers consider their role an honor.
“We’ve got a ritual we follow all the way through. We try to make it look as authentic as its supposed to be, whether we do it right we don’t know, but we’ve never had anybody complain,” Reinhart said.
Even through Iowa’s blustery winters when the trump and rifles feel like ice, the color guard volunteers all stand strong at the side of their fallen brother.
“Everyone of them, including Conley, all has the right feeling about it. Its not for any glory or anything like that, its for the family,” Reinhart said.
All of them volunteering their time to help each military family feel the appreciation of a grateful nation.
“I wouldn’t take any money, if they offered me money I wouldn’t take,” Conley said. “That’s just one of those things that you do.”
“This is what that deceased person has earned and we want to do the best we can to send him on,” Reinhart said. “Playing taps…that’s the final hu-rah, that’s goodbye.”
“It’s pretty important to have enough respect to go out and play,” Conley said.
A respect the Cherokee VFW hopes to find in the next generation, knowing they’ll never be able to replicate the dedication Conley has shown nearly all his life.
“He’s one in a million, when he’s gone, its going to be a big hole,” Reinhart said.
But for now, Conley says he’ll be there everytime he’s called to a funeral.
“I usually got to call him twice, sometimes he forgets if he doesn’t get it on his calendar,” Reinhart said.
A gentle reminder his friends say he’s earned after nearly eight decades of faithful service.
“As long as I still have my two front teeth, if you lose your front teeth, you can’t play trumpet any more,” Conley said. “But I don’t think I’ll lose them, so I’ll just keep playing.”
While he’s never kept count of how many times he’s played taps at military funerals, his estimate of 50 each year would mean he has played taps for nearly 4,000 fallen veterans in his lifetime.