Arlington Cemetery organist performed at 35,000 funerals
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series for 2018, which features veterans in our area sharing first-hand accounts of their military service.
DAVIS — An army veteran and former organist at Fort Myer Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, who performed at more than 35,000 funerals or memorial services for soldiers and their families, is now enjoying his retirement in Canaan Valley in Tucker County.
Robert Schaaf performed at memorial services for the Challenger and Columbia astronauts, famed heavyweight champion Joe Lewis, General Creighton Abrams, and Supreme Court justices Arthur Goldberg and Lewis Powell.
“I loved my job,” Schaaf said. “I was helping people during their roughest times. It was great to help people.”
After growing up in Kansas, Schaaf was drafted into the U.S. Army in September 1959.
“I started out in the Army in Alaska,” he said. “The commanding officer had me put together a band to go to the DEW Line sites in Alaska. There were some crazy experiences.”
The soldier’s chorus and combo Schaaf put together provided entertainment for military sites throughout Alaska. His group performed for President Dwight Eisenhower and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline.
After spending three years in Alaska and then fulfilling his stint in the Army, Schaaf earned a masters degree in music at the University of Kansas.
After graduation he was hired to teach at American University in Washington, D.C. Two of the students in the first musical theater class he taught there were actress Goldie Hawn and playwright Earnest Thompson, who would later win an Oscar for writing “On Golden Pond.”
In 1966, he was asked to become the organist at Fort Myer Chapel in Arlington, Virginia. In 1977, he was appointed by the Post Chaplain, COL William Martin, as organist/choirmaster, a post he held until his retirement in June 2011.
During his tenure he performed at many emotional services, including memorials for the 48 victims of the 9/11 Pentagon attack.
“There were huge crowds for those services,” he said. “The chapel could seat 1,000, but they set up areas in the Fellowship Hall with TV and a soundsystem for all the other people who attended.”
Schaaf said the period after the attacks was an emotionally draining time for the country.
“After 9/11, I worked seven days a week from 9/11 to Christmas,” he said.
He was the organist for the special service requested by President George Bush and conducted by Billy Graham on the first day of operations of Operation Desert Storm. Schaaf played at funeral services for many soldiers killed in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Schaaf noted that President Lyndon Johnson attended many services for soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.
“It really showed how much he cared about our soldiers, and how deeply it affected him,” Schaaf said. He added Johnson was there for the memorial service for those who died in the USS Forrestal fire in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1967.
“Working for Arlington Cemetery was rather awesome,” Schaaf said. “It was a tremendous responsibility, and very rewarding. That’s all I can say.”
In addition to the many funerals and memorial services, Schaaf also played at 3,000 weddings during his career, including those of presidential daughters Luci Baines Johnson and Tricia Nixon.
The Nixon wedding took place in the White House, and years later, Schaaf said, former president Richard Nixon attended a service at Arlington and sat near Schaaf.
Nixon nodded to him, and then after the service came up to him and said, “Bob, it’s good to see you again.”
“I said, ‘Mr. President, it’s good to see you again. And how’s you phlebitis doing?’ He really laughed when I asked him that,” Schaaf said.
He also had a personal connection with a First Lady.
“I was the organist for Mamie Eisenhower’s funeral” in 1979, Schaaf said. “There were probably 3,000 to 4,000 people outside in bleachers. She was very loved.”
Schaaf’s family knew the Eisenhowers from Kansas. For a time they were neighbors there to Schaaf’s grandfather.
“My dad played baseball with Ike and his brothers, Earl and Milton. One day I told Mamie that story and after that I was a guest at their place in Gettysburg,” he said.
Schaaf retired in 2011 — “They threw a big retirement party for me. The chief of staff sent a nice message to me,” he said — and decided to move to Canaan Valley, which he had visited often while working in D.C.
“I learned to ski in the Army up in Alaska,” he said. “I started skiing out here in Canaan Valley at the resort, and in about 1985 I joined the ski school and started teaching skiing.
“I just love West Virginia. I’m from Kansas originally but you couldn’t pay me to go back to that state.”
Schaaf currently plays organ with the St. Brendan Folk Choir on Sundays at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Elkins.
Each year now he puts together a memorial program at Canaan Valley Fire Hall for Veteran’s Day.
“Anything I can do to honor our soldiers, I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ve built my life on that.”