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Former Marine dreams of taps playing every night, everywhere

Apr. 4, 2013 - 08:08AM   |  
Bill Wellman of Valparaiso, Ind., hopes to wire the nation with the sound of taps -- every evening at dusk.
Bill Wellman of Valparaiso, Ind., hopes to wire the nation with the sound of taps -- every evening at dusk. (Will Higgins / The Indianapolis Star)
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VALPARAISO, Ind. — This story is American on two levels: It involves patriotism and profit.

Bill Wellman is 88, a proud former Marine, an energetic capitalist and all-around idea man.

His latest business plan: He wants to wire the nation for the playing of taps.

Wellman has begun pushing for the 24 heart-wrenching notes traditionally performed at military funerals to be played digitally, via speakers, every evening, everywhere.

Along the way, he would move a lot of merchandise for his employer, Merrillville-based Whiteco Industries Inc.

Other cities are known for regular rituals with wide appeal: London has its daily changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace; Key West’s throngs gather seaside each evening to applaud the sunset; in Las Vegas, the fountain at the Bellagio goes off spectacularly every half hour.

But whether playing taps at dusk nightly everywhere in the U.S. is a good idea depends on who’s being asked.

Mixed reactions

The mayor of Valparaiso, which will be the first municipality to offer nightly taps, likes Wellman’s plan. “Bill’s an awesome guy, and this is a neat idea,” said Mayor Jon Costas.

The nearby towns of Portage and Crown Point have expressed interest.

But when Wellman’s idea is floated farther south — even in the capital city of Indianapolis, filled with monuments to veterans and a mayor who’s also a former Marine — the reaction is lukewarm.

Nobody in their right mind would oppose honoring the war dead. But taps is somber, and Indianapolis, home of Super Bowl XLVI and so on, is busy playing up its vibrant side. Imagine a visitor stoked with red meat and a couple of Manhattans from St. Elmo Steak House striding excitedly to a Pacers game, and suddenly: the playing of taps. The effect could be sobering.

“We are known as a patriotic place, and rightly so,” said Chris Gahl of Visit Indy. “But we are a city on the rise, upbeat by nature. We might want taps reserved for special occasions, like Memorial Day or Veterans Day, and not every night.”

Mayor Greg Ballard’s spokesman, Marc Lotter, sounded a similar note: “Taps is a solemn piece, and Mayor Ballard would not want to diminish the solemn meaning it has” by making it an everyday thing.

So no slam dunk. But the indomitable Wellman hasn’t made his pitch yet.

Fount of ideas

Nightly taps is but the latest of his business ideas that span seven decades. Some have been effective, some not so much, but many have been memorable. One involved an elephant, another a dwarf, another Orville Redenbacher. Once, Wellman hired an American Indian to live briefly in a tepee in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn.

Wellman has owned and managed bars, a dinner theater, a bowling alley and a hotel. As a young man, he dropped out of not one but two colleges, Valparaiso and Indiana universities. He learned business on the job from his father, Guy, who, when he opened The Corral tavern in Valparaiso in 1948, drew attention to the place by dressing as a cowboy and riding up and down the street on a Palomino. He rode the horse right into the bar. He did it not once, but 10 times.

In the early 1970s, at his Bridge Vu Theater, Wellman was flying high, booking superstars such as Henny Youngman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Mickey Rooney. But he fell from grace when his idea of taking “Jesus Christ Superstar” on the road in the Midwest bombed and pushed him into bankruptcy.

Wellman emerged unbowed. He went to work for Whiteco, presided over by the venerable Dean White, the somewhat reclusive and fabulously successful billboard and hotel tycoon still active at 89. Wellman is White’s longest-serving employee and known to be among the billionaire’s trusted confidants.

Wellman hatched the taps idea on a quiet Sunday last fall. Watching TV, he learned that a Tacoma, Wash., man has hauled his bugle out to his veranda and played the notes every evening for the past two years.

Wellman, whose earliest memories of taps are as a Marine watching burials at sea off Okinawa, was moved by the man’s devotion. But as a businessman, he wondered whether there was a more efficient way.

Profile Systems, a subsidiary of Whiteco, sells digital timing devices designed to do the mundane, such as turn on and off parking lot lights automatically. So, Wellman wondered, could it do the same for taps?

It turns out it can, and very easily. “You just set the ZIP code and the local time and add an MP3 file and let it rip,” said Todd Clark, Profile Systems’ vice president of technology.

Last fall, Wellman tested the box by rigging it to a speaker mounted beneath the deck at his condo, and it has gone off at dusk — without a hitch — ever since.

Last month, he signed his first customer, Valparaiso. The taps box is so new that Profile Systems personnel haven’t even named it; informally they’re calling it P-Taps. When marketed as a light-control box, it costs $500.

Digitizing trend

Wellman isn’t the first to suggest digitizing the sacred song. In 2004, the Defense Department authorized a way to get around hiring a bugler at funerals by using a “Ceremonial Bugle,” a push-button bugle that looks as if it’s being played live.

In downtown Valparaiso, which already has 50 high-quality speakers mounted on streetlights, the playing of taps is set to begin this week.

“It will be a good talking point for our city,” said Tom Holliman, a bartender at Bon Femme, which occupies the spot where the Corral tavern once stood. “Not that people will come to Valparaiso just to hear taps, but it’ll make us stand out.”

But what if Wellman’s plan catches fire and taps becomes a common, everyday thing in towns across the nation?

“We can say we started something,” said Harry Lucaitis, Holliman’s customer.

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