PEORIA, Ill. | Who plays taps when the bugler dies?
That's a tough question in the wake of the death of Ron Allgaier, 63, a fixture at thousands of military funerals for almost a half-century. The Peoria man's recent passing leaves a huge void amid an already endangered species, a bugler who plays taps at veterans' grave sites.
"He was our go-to guy," said Gary Dieters, owner of Deiters Funeral Home & Crematory, which has locations in East Peoria and Washington. "He'd stand out there if it was 10 degrees out. We'd show up, and he'd already be there."
Echoing that gratitude was Bill Craig, secretary for American Legion Peoria Post 2.
"That good son-of-gun, I've known him for years," said Craig, 85. "I called on him 10-hundred-million times, and he came out every time."
The Peoria native got his start with the trumpet as part of marching band at Limestone Community High School. One day in 1964, his trumpet got the freshman called into the principal's office.
"He thought he was in trouble," said son Ryan Allgaier, 31, of East Peoria.
Instead, the principal had a desperate request: a veteran's group needed a bugler to play taps at an upcoming funeral, but could find no one available. So, the call went out to area schools, looking for a sub among band students.
Allgaier had never tried a bugle — a horn with no valves; you just blow — but said he'd give it a go on his trumpet. After some fast practice, the teen delivered 24 perfect notes that day, then decided to keep at it.
He began playing taps at military services throughout the Tri-Counties.
At Bradley University, he blew trumpet in the jazz band. And for decades at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Peoria — where he also served as an elder, liturgist and teacher — he often played trumpet during services.
But he always held a special place for the simple, mournful dirge of taps.
"It'll penetrate right through your bones," he once said. "I think it is not a closure of things, but it is a song of dignity, to reflect upon a person's service. It's a thank-you for the family, for a job well done."
Though Allgaier never served in the military, he felt a dedication to the fallen.
"He just felt the need to honor the veterans," his son said. "He was just so impressed that people would risk their lives for their country."
Over the years, he'd play for events with veterans groups, the Peoria Police Department and the Peoria County Sheriff's Office. Meantime, he'd appear at about 50 funerals a year, the hardest being police farewells. Allgaier once recalled a particular funeral for an officer killed in action: "I came very close to breaking down when I saw his young son salute his father as I started to play."
To allow his heavy bugling schedule, Allgaier often took vacation time from his job at Caterpillar Inc. But the company was also accommodating, letting him take off with little notice or take long lunches.
"I was totally amazed at his time dedication," said Becky Weber, one of the very few other funeral buglers in the area. "It's not like you buzz out there and play taps. It's a two-hour commitment."
Like Allgaier, the 52-year-old Metamora woman became in high demand in recent years. Since 2000, U.S. protocol has required at least two uniformed service members to be present when military honors are requested at the funerals of honorably discharged veterans. They must fold and present the flag, and taps must be played. If no bugler is available, the service personnel must play a recording, sometimes via a bugle programmed to play taps.
But Weber said survivors much more appreciate the live rendition.
"Their families are so grateful that you've taken the time to do it," she said. "It means so much."
On several occasions, she and Allgaier appeared at the same funeral. They played taps as an echo, with Weber on lead and Allgaier following a beat later, the notes resounding eerily as if far away.
"It was just so awesome," she said.
In February, Allgaier — a widower and father of two — married Carolyn Brown. About the same time, he was diagnosed with melanoma. Still, he soldiered on with his bugling, playing at the Memorial Day ceremony on Peoria's riverfront. He played a pair of veterans' funerals in late November.
"The last one, he really struggled, because he had lost so much strength," his son said.
After 40 years at Cat, the last as a packaging analyst, he retired in mid-December. Shortly thereafter, his health nose-dived. He died Jan. 4.
Said trumpeter Weber, "It is a huge loss for the Peoria area."
Agreeing is Deiters, owner of the eponymous funeral homes. He doubts he'll be able to find a replacement of Allgaier's skill and dedication — or any replacement at all.
As if to underscore that need Monday, the Legion's Craig ceaselessly worked phones to find a bugler for Allgaier's funeral Tuesday morning. He called around to schools — the same way Allgaier got his start five decades ago. He eventually found a replacement amid his Legion ranks: Donald Kelly, a World War II Navy vet with little training in music but an enthusiasm to try the bugle — just for Allgaier.
And though taps is usually reserved for veterans' farewells, Craig says it well suits the final goodbye to Ron Allgaier.
"He sure as heck always helped us," Craig said. "I consider him one of us."