'We owe it to them': Navy veteran finds new mission playing taps

After being laid off from his job in the electronics industry about 12 years ago, Navy veteran Jim Reynolds revisited his roots for a new sense of purpose.

Figuratively dusting off the bugle of his youth, Reynolds has been on a mission to play taps wherever and whenever he's needed as a solemn message of mourning and thanks for military service. He hasn't kept official track, but he estimates he's played at more than 1,000 functions.

“The veteran has earned this honor and we owe it to them,” said Reynolds, an electronics technician who spent a year in Vietnam repairing radar, radios and other equipment used on patrol boats and other vessels. “It gives you a good feeling to know you're helping a family through a difficult time.”

As a member of local American Legion and VFW posts, the Round Lake Park resident learned of Bugles Across America and signed up. He has spent a lot of time on the road since, often making several stops in a single day to perform the 24-note bugle call at military funerals and other events.

“I've done them in cemeteries, funeral homes and churches. I've also done them at a fish hatchery in Spring Grove and at Bill's Pub in Mundelein,” said Reynolds, who like others in the organization is an unpaid volunteer.

“He's unrecognized. When people go to a funeral, they don't realize he's doing it and he may have been in three or four other places,” said Nick Konz, a fellow veteran, friend and president of the executive board of the Lake County Veterans Assistance Commission. “He does this on the same day on his own dime.”

Last year, Reynolds played taps at 191 funerals and memorial services, putting more than 600 hours of volunteer time and 6,000 miles on his car.

Reynolds was born in Chicago but raised in Third Lake, a little town just west of Gurnee. He was introduced to the bugle in the mid-1950s.

“I think my mother was tired of dealing with four kids all summer, so she signed us up with the drum and bugle corps to have something to do,” Reynolds said.

He wanted to be a drummer.

“They handed me the horn and said, 'Go make noise,'” he recalled. He did that for about five years until he was given the choice of playing football at Grayslake High School or continuing with drum and bugle. He handed over his horn and wouldn't revisit the instrument for about 45 years.

Reynolds joined the Navy, spending three years in California studying and working on electronics. The fourth year he was sent to Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. He was discharged in 1968 as a petty officer second class, better known as an E-5.

After the Navy, Reynolds worked at different jobs, including at an electronics shop in Mundelein and 22 years at Motorola.

When he was laid off, Reynolds said he realized others needed a job more than he and stopped looking for work. He reconnected with the bugle after learning about Berwyn-based Bugles Across America and spent a few months getting back in playing shape.

“Once they accept you, you have to audition so they know you can really play,” he said. “It's not like riding a bicycle.”

So began a second career.

“We feel the veteran has paid the price or earned the honors and we are there to make sure our nation's debt is paid,” he said.

Reynolds said he typically plays about 15 times a month. But the coronavirus pandemic has greatly limited opportunities and until this last weekend, when he traveled to Kankakee, Springfield and Joliet, he had played only seven times since mid-March.

Taps usually is played in 50 to 60 seconds and Reynolds splits that difference at 55 seconds. He says the bugle call does not require virtuoso talent, but playing in front of a grieving family is another story.

“Emotionally, it's difficult. Technically, it's not,” he said. “As long as they don't change the song, I'll keep playing it.”

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Jim Reynolds learned to play bugle as a child growing up in Lake County, but stopped to join his high school football team. He returned to the instrument a little more than a decade ago when he joined Bugles Across America. He's performed at more than 1,000 events since. Courtesy of the College of Lake County
Navy veteran Jim Reynolds with Gander, an award-winning comfort dog, just before a service at Fort Sheridan Cemetery. Courtesy of Jim Reynolds
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