Marine's modesty leads to surprises for his children after his death

Sgt. Barker
Sgt. Barker

A little more than 24 hours after burying their father at Beaufort National Cemetery, Bill Barker's four children stood in Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park last week and paid a final tribute to a man they say devoted his life to family, music and the military.

It wasn't until recently that they learned how devoted a musician he was, having performed at President John F. Kennedy's funeral procession and alongside jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Barker, 72, a former conductor of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island Band, was buried July 15 with military honors after succumbing to cancer at his Florida home earlier this month.

As the band her father once directed blared the notes of "The Marines' Hymn" to kick-start the 55th annual Beaufort Water Festival, Susan Jewell said she could feel his presence.

"It was the perfect send-off," Jewell said. "To see that band he used to direct playing all of that military music was incredibly moving. Of course, they ended with the Marine Corps hymn, and we cried through the whole thing."

"It was like he was right there," his daughter Maribeth Hughes added.

A native of Mingo Junction, Ohio, Barker's 27-year Marine Corps career included a stint as a trumpet player in the U.S. Marine Band, also known as "The President's Own," according to his obituary. The oldest professional musical organization in the country, the band plays 500 events every year, including state funerals, state dinners and presidential inauguration ceremonies.

As a band member, Barker performed at several important functions, including Kennedy's funeral procession in November 1963, an experience Jewell said her father rarely spoke about.

"He wasn't a braggart," she said, adding that she and her siblings only learned recently that their father performed with Fitzgerald and Armstrong.

Barker's solemn march through the streets of Washington in November 1963 wasn't the only part of Barker's life his family knew little about. More was revealed as his son Jamie recently went through an attic full of old boxes.

"I found it buried under a box of bow ties and cummerbunds," Jamie Barker said. "I picked up the box and heard something rattling around in there, and I opened it up and there they were -- little Purple Heart lapel pins. We never knew anything about it. We asked our mother if she knew anything about the Purple Heart he received and she said, 'What Purple Heart?'

"We still don't know where the medal itself is."

Though the details are murky, Jamie Barker said he was told his father and another Marine were on patrol in Vietnam when a land mine or hand grenade detonated. Shrapnel from the explosion injured Barker and killed the other Marine.

"I don't think he felt like he deserved the medal because the other guy died," Jamie Barker said.

The Barker family moved to Beaufort in 1972 after their father was assigned to be the enlisted conductor of the Parris Island Band, a job he loved, Jamie Barker said.

"He liked to dig around and do some research to find out what the commanding general's wife's favorite song was and find a way to incorporate that into their performances," Jamie Barker said. "He loved to think outside the box."

Bill Barker retired from the Corps in 1976 as a master gunnery sergeant but remained in the Beaufort area, where he and his former wife, Patricia, owned and operated the Yellow Shutter Restaurant on Craven Street. The business closed in 1981, and the couple retired to Florida.

The family seldom returned to Beaufort, but Bill Barker's son Mick said the city always held a special place in his father's heart.

"He loved Beaufort because it embraced the military and embraced music," Mick Barker said. "Music was everything to him. He was a Marine first and a musician second, and the ability to combine those two things meant everything to him."