James Markel sings the National Anthem last Thursday.
By Kate Luce Angell
James Markel, of the Monroeville police department, had sung for groups as large as 17,000.
But he said his performance at last Thursday's memorial service for Pittsburgh Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly at the Petersen Events Center in Oakland was his biggest challenge yet.
"They say there were 20,000 people there, with officers from all over -- Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago," Officer Markel noted. "But I wasn't nervous. I knew I had a job to do."
He performed the national anthem and "The Lord's Prayer" during the service.
Officer Markel, 50, who will enter his 33rd year as a policeman next month, has been singing publicly since 1985. He has often performed at memorial services for members of police and fire departments, emergency services or military units.
He concedes it's unusual to find a police officer who sings.
"There's not a lot of cops who do this," said Officer Markel, a 1976 Gateway High School graduate.
"But I like to think that it shows people a different side of law enforcement and makes memorial services more personal for those in uniform, knowing it's one of their own."
Officer Markel said he performs often enough now that he rarely feels anxious about it. But when he started singing for his church in 1985, he was hoping vocal performance would help him master his fear of public speaking.
"That's one of people's biggest fears, speaking in front of a group," he said. "Singing is worse because you've got to hit the right notes, too."
Reaction at Murrysville Alliance Church, which he attends, was positive. In addition to memorial services, he now also performs at various community and sporting events.
His biggest standing gig is Murrysville Alliance's annual Blessing of the Bikes, which will take place Sunday.
"That is something to see," he said. "We usually get anywhere from 11,000 to 17,000 motorcycles, guys from every outlaw motorcycle gang."
Officer Markel said he comes from a family that has a strong tradition of serving in uniform. His father, John, was a law enforcement officer with the Federal Reserve Bank. His two brothers, John Jr. and William, have worked in the Allegheny County and Penn Hills police departments, respectively.
His daughters, Ashleigh, 22, and Courtney, 20, have followed in their father's footsteps by singing in their college communities.
Officer Markel said his first love was Christian and patriotic music.
"I do 'Amazing Grace,' 'Ave Maria,' 'God Bless America,' " he said. "Once in a while, I'll get a request for 'Danny Boy.' "
He said he's been told he's a natural tenor, and he would love to learn to read music. But he has had no formal musical training. "I just listen and try to sing it so it affects people."
Moving his listeners is especially rewarding for him, he said.
"One of the best compliments I ever had was from an older lady who used a walker. I had performed in a church, and she came all the way down the aisle, all the way across to say, 'Bless you.' "
Another high point was when he was practicing a number for a funeral. One of the funeral home workers said he had mistaken Officer Markel for singer Michael Crawford, who is famous for his performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera."
But Officer Markel stressed that he doesn't sing for compliments as much as for what he can do for the families of slain officers during memorial services.
"People are affected by music, and when they see a policeman up there, it means more to them. They know what it means to me to honor these men."
Officer Markel also will appear May 1 at a candlelight vigil at the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial on the North Side, and May 17 at the annual "Blue Mass" at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland.
He said he looked forward to his retirement from the force when he turns 60, but that he didn't believe that he'd be retiring from singing anytime soon.
"I'll keep going as long as God gives me the voice," he said. "I feel very blessed and satisfied to do what I do."