A 94-year-old WWII veteran and his 81-year-old pianist spread music and joy

November 5th, 2018

The sounds of singing and old-time piano tunes echo through the hospital atrium, warming up a cold November afternoon, just like the fireplace nearby.

Two older men in red volunteer vests perform at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. One is 81 and is playing the piano in the foreground. The other is a 94-year-old WW II vet. He's in the backgrounda and is smiling before he sings.
Rex Winters, 81, plays the piano as his buddy, Virgil Hughes, 94, sings along. Both men are veterans, who volunteer regularly at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

The singer is 94. The pianist is 81. And the onlookers, who join in to hear some tunes and sing along, range in age from their 20s to their 80s.

Virgil Hughes is the 94-year-old. He’s a veteran of World War II, who was a rifleman in the Army’s 78th Infantry Division and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Virgil later became an engineer and specialized in disaster relief. He retired as a colonel after 43 years in the service. All his life, he has loved music and sharing it with others.

His pianist, close friend and fellow music aficionado is Rex Winters, 81. Rex is also a veteran, who served during peacetime from 1959 to 1963. The Army trained him as an Arabic linguist and he worked for the National Security Agency. Winters learned to play the piano by ear as a boy and is studying music theory and classical music now. This new chapter comes after earlier careers as a tax lawyer, an electrical engineer and his years with the NSA.

After meeting Virgil through music, Rex learned that his buddy’s living situation in a retirement home wasn’t going well. So Rex and his wife invited Virgil to move into a small mother-in-law apartment at their Wheat Ridge home. Rex also drives the duo to their many musical gigs now that Virgil is no longer comfortable behind the wheel.

‘Everybody should have more music’

Once a week, the men come to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital where they volunteer almost every Friday afternoon. They play the piano and sing simply because they want to share some joy.

“I sing to get other people to sing along,” Virgil said. “Many people are lacking in music. I’m hooked on singing. Everybody should have a little more music in their lives.”

Music brings people together. Strangers stop and listen and before long, they’re tapping their toes, grinning and singing.

On a recent Friday, a man waiting for a prescription watched with a beatific smile as the men in red volunteer vests played and sang to tunes like Let me call you sweetheart, Just a Song at Twilight and Darktown Strutters’ Ball.

“My mom was a flapper,” Rex confided. “She taught me all these songs that were popular in the 20s.”

‘Come and join the party’

Arlonzo Bryant, 54, wandered over.

“Come on and join the party,” Rex called out.

Two men smile as they lean over a piano and sing.
Virgil Hughes sings with Arlonzo Bryant, who said he loves singing and enjoyed a break from dealing with an illness.

“It’s amazing and relaxing and comforting,” said Bryant as he stepped up to the baby grand piano.

Bryant is also a veteran. He served for more than 20 years in the Air Force and used to jump out of helicopters, he said.

Recently, he’s been dealing with an illness that has robbed him of his energy and has caused him to shrink from 220 to 150 pounds. The music gave him a break during a visit to the hospital to pick up medication.

“As I was coming up, walking through the hallways, I heard them singing songs that I know,” Bryant said. “I grew up wanting to be a singer.

“I love it. It’s refreshing,” he said. “I don’t like ever feeling weak. In the last year, my health has started to decline and we don’t know what it is.”

Virgil gets a kick out of making people like Bryant happy.

“I get to see the smiles,” he said. “Rex is at a disadvantage because he’s at the keyboard and has to keep playing. I get to do the smiling for both of us and the smiles are returned.”

From singing to the dulcimer and the hurdy-gurdy

Virgil grew up in a Welsh family, where everyone sang and played instruments around the clock. He remembers getting into trouble back in first grade when he wouldn’t stop singing all day at school.

“I feel sorry for my teacher,” Virgil said.

He was born in western Kansas to a family of builders, carpenters and tradesmen. When the dust bowl drove farmers out of Kansas, Virgil’s family moved to Denver in 1938 to find work. At age 11, he started working as a carpenter’s apprentice for his grandfather, then joined the Army at age 18 in 1942.

These days Virgil plays the tuba, drums, saxophone, dulcimer and an unusual instrument called a hurdy-gurdy. He used to build and sell dulcimer kits and collects and repairs old instruments.

After performing, Virgil and Rex head to the hospital cafeteria, where they regale some 20-somethings with stories.

Martin Moe, 28, is a volunteer in the University of Colorado Hospital Emergency Department. He had heard from the volunteer coordinator about Virgil and Rex and wanted to meet them.

“The thought that these older gentlemen are willing to come every week and give something back, I just loved the idea of it,” said Moe, who brought two friends with him.

They listened to the music, then to stories afterwards.

‘We were drafted and we did our jobs’

The Battle of the Bulge marked a key turning point during WWII.

“It was Hitler’s last attempt to break the will of the Allies. And Virgil was there,” said Bill Gwaltney, 62, a friend who has been recording hours of interviews with Virgil for an oral history project.

“The Battle of the Bulge ultimately made the downfall of the German Empire inevitable,” Gwaltney said.

He recently retired after a long career with the National Park Service and a five-year stint in Europe with the American Battle Monuments Commission, the federal agency that manages WWI and WWII cemeteries in Europe.

Gwaltney said Virgil’s stories are remarkable and his memories of key events remain crystal clear.

Virgil often talks about how cold the German winters were. He remembers one time when a new American officer arrived and asked Virgil and his men how they were doing.

“Sir, we’re cold,” Virgil said. And the officer took his personal wool blanket, cut it into strips and gave the men scarves.

“He never has forgotten that act of caring,” Gwaltney said. “He remembers these stories like they were yesterday. He knows exactly when and where they were and he remembers jingles from the 1930s and can sing them. It’s like having a personal time machine.”

As they did their oral history interviews, Gwaltney learned that Virgil never had seen the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. He tried to arrange an honor flight trip for Virgil, but it wasn’t working out. So, knowing time was of the essence, Gwaltney and his wife saved their own money and took Virgil to the nation’s capital in May. The visit to the WWII monument was a highlight.

A 94-year-old WW II veteran, Virgil Hughes, poses with a sign that says World War II Memorial. He visited the memorial in Washington, D.C. in May.
Virgil Hughes, 94, was mobbed by admirers when he visited the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. over the summer. Photo courtesy of Bill Gwaltney.

“It didn’t take long for people to mob him. They get to meet veterans, but not many WW II vets. They asked a lot of questions and some of them cried,” Gwaltney said.

Virgil downplays his heroism. When people praise him and fellow WWII vets as “the greatest generation,” he gets a little uncomfortable.

“Sometimes people try to make it extra special,” Virgil said of his service. “It really wasn’t out of patriotism. We were drafted and we did our jobs.”

Well, said Gwaltney, “We’re sure glad they were there to do their jobs. We asked them to do a difficult job and they did it.”

Virgil loved seeing the memorial. He didn’t expect it to be so special.

“I thought it would just be another memorial, but I was pleasantly impressed,” Virgil said. “It is a big deal. It really did impress me.”

WWII memories: both lighter moments and nightmares

One of Virgil’s most bizarre stories came from the winter of 1943. He and fellow soldiers were on an overnight patrol when they found a German encampment. The Germans used to set up tents in a circle and put a pot of stew on the fire in the middle. Virgil and his buddies snuck up to the pot after the soldiers had gone to sleep and dumped a powerful laxative called calomel into the stew.

“They were out of business for three days,” Rex said with a grin.

94-year-old WW II veteran Virgil Hughes stands in front of a fountain at the WW II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Virgil Hughes had never seen the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. until this summer when a friend took him. Hughes fought in the pivotal Battle of the Bulge and served a total of 43 years in the military.. Photo courtesy of Bill Gwaltney.

Virgil avoided combat during most of the war. But he did experience some trauma that has haunted him ever since.

“I was leading a little patrol in a village in Aachen, Germany. I sent one of my men to the other side of the road and he got killed,” Virgil said.

It was pure chance that Virgil picked one side of the street to patrol and sent his fellow soldier to the other. Nonetheless, he has never been able to get the young man’s death out of his head.

“You’re on a mission. You can’t stop. That was the start of my post-traumatic-stress syndrome. It’s bothered me all these years,” Virgil said.

He has coped with terrible nightmares for decades.

“They didn’t know what to do about it. Medically, we were in the dark ages,” Virgil said.

He’s gotten some relief through newer treatments in recent years.

Perfect harmony

Perhaps singing and bringing joy to others have helped too.

A friend who met Virgil through a brass band 20 years ago sometimes comes to hear Virgil and Rex at the hospital. She said he’s always giving to others.

“Virgil is always looking for a way to contribute and creating music is one of the ways he does that,” said the friend, Margaret Devere.

“Music is good for the mind and good for the spirit. Listening to it is great. Playing is even better. And playing in a group is a transcendent experience,” she said.

Both Virgil and Rex nodded in agreement.

In particular, Virgil loves harmonizing with others.

“You’re hooked together when you’re singing in harmony, like in a barbershop quartet,” Hughes said. “If everything is just right, it’s a real kick.”