Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Sanford man with a trumpet offers strangers a nightly song

Walter Doelp, 82 and legally blind, serenades his neighborhood at Carolina Trace in Sanford every night at sunset. He always plays taps, but he usually adds “As Time Goes By” or “Amazing Grace.” He rings a bell and blows a conch shell to announce his nightly concert.
Walter Doelp, 82 and legally blind, serenades his neighborhood at Carolina Trace in Sanford every night at sunset. He always plays taps, but he usually adds “As Time Goes By” or “Amazing Grace.” He rings a bell and blows a conch shell to announce his nightly concert. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

Every night at sunset, even when it’s raining, Walter Doelp takes his black Giardinelli trumpet out on the porch and blows a dreamy serenade to his neighbors – a gift from a man who is both 82 and legally blind.

On most nights, he plays “As Time Goes By,” the favorite from “Casablanca,” closing his eyes for dramatic emphasis.

Sometimes he mixes in “How Great Thou Art,” the church favorite, a sonic attempt at rolling thunder.

But Doelp always finishes with taps, switching to a bugle, holding the last note until his breath runs out.

“It’s kind of universally popular,” he explained. “There’s no quibbling or arguing about taps.”

If you’re thinking Doelp’s nightly song is already absurdly charming, consider that he plays it over a 315-acre lake at Carolina Trace. The sound carries over the water each night, echoing off the trees. Couples in pontoon boats steer themselves to his porch and swoon while he plays.

Earlier this month, Doelp’s neighbors held a regatta in his honor, parking 30 boats at the foot of his yard and noisily awaiting sunset.

“It’s like a reward for being alive,” Fred Berman noted, showing off the pictures he took that day.

Doelp and his wife, Joyce, retired to Sanford roughly 20 years ago after his career as an engineer for Ford, where he helped develop the first electrical ignition and introduce the world to the check-engine light.

He hasn’t seen well enough to drive his own car since 2001, but he passed time singing in the gated community’s Get Happy Chorus or making cork trivets in small wood shop.

Resolved to do better

Then about seven years ago, on vacation in Florida, he joined a throng of people at the water’s edge at sunset, and in the distance, he heard someone open an eighth-story window and play a recorded version of taps. It rankled a little, hearing the music on tape rather than live, and he resolved to do better on his own waterfront.

Back in Sanford, he dug out his silver-plated trumpet, long unused, a relic from his marching band days in high school. He’d messed around playing in a dance band at Penn State in the ’40s. But for the most part since then, he’d spent decades with his head lost in circuitry.

But even with his chops gone flabby, he faced the lake and puffed out “Amazing Grace.” Then “Summertime.” Then taps. He did it again the next day, and the next, until he bought himself both a new trumpet and a bugle. If he was home, and it wasn’t icy or drenching out, he’d warble a tune to the lake.

Doelp added more to his ritual. Before he played, he rang a steamship bell and blew a long note on a conch shell. He wore a pair of white gloves. Joyce approved. Soon, he gained an audience. Canoes paddled up to his porch at dusk. Boaters lingered till he’d finished.

Before long, he started getting calls. “Are you going to play tonight?” they’d ask. “Are you ready? We’re ready.”

‘You’ve affected people’

Even when he’d play to an empty lake, a stranger would buttonhole him a day later. He’d thought he’d played alone, but somebody heard him while out walking the dog or having a glass of wine on the patio.

“The rewarding thing is people telling you they enjoyed it and you didn’t see them,” Doelp said. “You didn’t know they were out there. You don’t have to have an immediate impact, and that’s a big thing in life. You never know you’ve affected people.”

For the people living on this small lake, Doelp’s song must come as large comfort, more than a familiar train whistle or a church bell on Sunday – reassuring as a good-night kiss.

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