History lover presents perspective of past

When Catonsville librarian Monty Phair was 8, his uncle took him to a Civil War battlefield.

The rest is history.

His passion for history, particularly that of Baltimore, has driven his participation in historical reenactments and is something he enjoys sharing with others.

"Early on, I developed a love of history," Phair, 56, said. "It was just something I felt very, very drawn to."

On Saturday, Sept. 27 at 2 p.m., instead of checking out books, Phair will portray a member of the Committee of Vigilance & Safety of Baltimore City, in a reenactment of the British attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812. The event follows the recent Star Spangled Celebration in Baltimore of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore.

Dressed in the clothing of the period, Phair will talk about the events leading up to that battle and what happened that day.

"Monty's love of history is a wonderful resource for us at the Catonsville branch," said Melissa Gotsch, manager of the Catonsville Library. "He's great at bringing history to life, and this program is an opportunity for Catonsville community members to learn a little more about why our region is celebrating the Star Spangled Spectacular." 

The battle was a pivotal point in the war, as the city fought off British attacks. During that stand, attorney Francis Scott Key wrote the famous lyrics for "The Star Spangled Banner."

Fort McHenry, as well as several other locations around the city, hosted a number of celebrations and activities to celebrate the event from Sept. 6 to 16, some of which Phair was part of.

Phair, who has lived in Catonsville since 2003, has been volunteering as a War of 1812 reenactor at Fort McHenry for 17 years.

He is part of the Fort McHenry Guard, a group of volunteers sponsored by the National Park Service and The Patriots of Fort McHenry, who inform the public about the history of the site.

Phair said the main purpose of the guard is to increase the awareness of the history of the War of 1812, which is often not part of the history curriculum in schools.

"It's important for students to know that our country has evolved over time and is not static — we are not the same country that we were in 1814," Phair said.

Phair said he joined the guard after he learned of the group from a volunteer who attended a Maryland Library Association event in Hagerstown.

He had done Civil War reenactments, but was ready for a change.

"This was a wonderful opening for me to get involved in a part of history that I didn't know at the time," Phair said.

Since then, he has spent years portraying a soldier and handling artillery. Now, after eye surgery, he depicts civilians as part of a group that portrays the Committee of Vigilance and Safety.

The committee was a group of 30 civic-minded men who organized the details of the defense of Baltimore City, Phair said.

"It's actually much more interesting and enriching because you get to do what they call fourth wall historical interpretation," Phair said. "People see what's going on and I can describe what is happening."

He also talks about the social, cultural, technological and political history of the character, something that reenactors never have the opportunity to talk about as soldiers, Phair said.

He carries a book with the minutes of the committee, so that he knows what the group did and what was happening, which guides him in playing the role, he said.

"I try to get into character and some of it is acting," he said.

For those who know Phair, it's a suitable role.

"When he starts talking, he forgets he's talking — he is enraptured in the details of what he is saying," said Andrew J. Stritch, who has been volunteering alongside Phair at Fort McHenry for 17 years.

"He's got more raw knowledge than most and has the ability to deliver the information," Stritch said. "He's a great interpreter of thoughts."

Phair, who grew up in northeast Baltimore, earned a bachelor's degree in history and mass communications from Towson University and a master's degree in library science from the University of Maryland, College Park.

"It's one thing to read about it in a book, but to get out in front of a group and present it is difficult," Phair said.

Public speaking classes in college helped, he said.

He doesn't typically present in first-person narrative, which requires in-depth knowledge of one character, Phair said.

"I try to give a composite view of many, many people of the committee," he said. "I want to give folks an idea of all the things we were involved in."

Although he enjoys looking back at the past, he's comfortable in the present.

Medicine, food, hygiene and the life expectancies are all much more appealing now, Phair said.

"It's nice to show people what it was like, but I would not want to stay in that time period," he said.

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