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2017 Everyday Heroes: Ron Bykowski

Michelle LaVigne - For Shaw Media
Ron Bykowski of McHenry, Air Force veteran and co-founder of Spirit of '45 Alive has played taps for approximately 1,116 services and funerals. "To me it's always been an honor to do that," Bykowski said there are only 24 notes in the taps melody, yet when played the song can conjure up immense emotion. "It just vibrates in a persons heart."
Michelle LaVigne - For Shaw Media Ron Bykowski of McHenry, Air Force veteran and co-founder of Spirit of '45 Alive has played taps for approximately 1,116 services and funerals. "To me it's always been an honor to do that," Bykowski said there are only 24 notes in the taps melody, yet when played the song can conjure up immense emotion. "It just vibrates in a persons heart."

McHENRY – The tune is just 24 notes long. But oh, how those notes – sounded well and purely – stir anyone within earshot. 

As those who’ve attended patriotic ceremonies in McHenry can attest, Ron Bykowski’s rendition of taps is as superb as it comes. Known for fostering a “Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive” event at Veterans Memorial Park that’s included multiple buglers playing taps each August since 2010, Bykowski has played the trumpet ever since his parents bought him “an old, beat up, used horn” in fourth grade. 

From 1965 to 1975, he played his way throughout Europe as a member of the 539th U.S. Air Force Band and the 566th U.S. Air Force Air National Guard Band. As a veteran, he’s donated his talent and time for countless ceremonies. As of January, Bykowski, now 71, had tallied 1,116 performances of taps at patriotic events and graveside ceremonies for fallen veterans – the first of which he completed as a high school sophomore.

Today, the McHenry real estate investor is part of a network of buglers called Bugles Across America. Members monitor an online request site and volunteer for the graveside duty when proximity and schedules allow.

Bykowski considers it an honor and a privilege. 

“There are some cemeteries that have this great echo quality,” he said. “You play, and you hear that echo coming back as you play the last note, the last honor to that deceased veteran; it echoes in the distance and quickly fades away. But it forever vibrates in the hearts of everyone in attendance. 

“I’ve seen grown men cry because there’s such emotion attached to that.”

Not all of the music Bykowski plays is melancholy. Marches and more were part of his active-duty repertoire. 

“I do these programs in schools on Veterans Days,” Bykowski said. “We go into a classroom and sit and each tell the students what we’ve done. This guy was a cook or that one drove a tank … 

“I tell the kids ‘I was in the Air Force and guess what I did?’ They guess ‘You were a pilot’ or ‘You were a mechanic’ or ‘You fixed airplanes.’ I pull out my trumpet and say ‘I played in the band,’ and the kids’ eyes light up.”

Performing in the Air Force bands was great, Bykowski said, noting that he and his fellow musicians not only boosted troop morale, but also entertained the public, fostering goodwill.

“People just loved us. We’d sign autographs,” he said, smiling at the recollection. “Music is such an international language.”

A founder of the “Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive” event in McHenry, Bykowski is pleased to see the hundreds of residents who attend. The program honors those who served during World War II – whether in the military or on the homefront.

“We’ve had as many as 600 people,” he said. “Probably the best one was when we honored people who had been married for 60 years or more. We’ve also had as many as 22 buglers [performing rolling taps], but it averages around 18.” 

Many are accustomed to seeing Bykowski in his white or blue American Legion Honor Guard uniform at events throughout the year. What they don’t see is equally impressive, McHenry native and U.S. Army veteran Gary Snell said.

“There are people who know of Ron, and people who know Ron,” Snell said. “The people who know him know how active he is behind the scenes. Whenever he’s asked to help or to do anything, he’s one of the first to volunteer.”

Kirk Booher of Logan Pass Capital nominated Bykowski to be profiled in Everyday Heroes.

“I have known Ron Bykowski for nearly 10 years and I can honestly say I have not known anyone who gives his time so generously to the community and our veterans,” Booher wrote.

Bykowski has been a member of McHenry American Legion Post 491 for 51 years. He was the first commander of McHenry’s Polish Legion of American Veterans Post 188 in 1981, and remains a member. He’s been a member of the Rotary Club of McHenry since 1978, and is a McHenry Chamber of Commerce Frank E. Low Award winner. 

The McHenry Montini schools and Marian Central Catholic High School graduate is active in his Catholic parish, St. Mary’s of McHenry, as well as a member of the board of the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Rockford. In 2009, Marian named him a distinguished graduate, and in 2015, he was the McHenry Fiesta Days parade marshal. He served for 26 years as a member and chairman of the former NIMED Board of Directors for Centegra Health System. 

Bykowski and his wife, Linda, look forward to their 35th wedding anniversary in April. They have a daughter, a son-in-law and three grandchildren. 

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