You can take the ranger out of Fort McHenry, but you can't take the love of the fort out of the ranger.
Anne Arundel County native Vince Vaise — best known by his fans as the ever-enthusiastic "Ranger Vince" — might no longer officially work in Baltimore after 27 years, but he can't stay away.
Vaise, a lifelong Linthicum resident, was promoted in June to chief of visitor services and community outreach at National Capital Parks-East in Washington.
This Friday, he'll be back in Baltimore, leading 1,300 pupils from city schools in a program at the national monument and historic shrine. The program is part of a three-day Defenders Day celebration, "The Star-Spangled Weekend," which will commemorate the defense of the city from British attack and the writing of the national anthem in 1814.
"Defenders Day is like Christmas, your birthday and the Fourth of July all rolled into one," Vaise said with his trademark zeal.
For the Young Defenders program, Vaise will dress as Francis Scott Key and recite the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner." Students will learn about the role of African-Americans in Baltimore in 1814, participate in a singalong and help unroll a 30-by-42-foot replica of the Star-Spangled Banner with 15 stars and 15 stripes.
Many people know Vaise as the face of Fort McHenry, where he began volunteering in 1987 as a senior at Mount Saint Joseph High School and was hired as a seasonal ranger three years later. He also previously worked at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson.
Before he left earlier this year for the nation's capital, he had never worked anywhere else.
"The culture of the National Park Service is to move around and get different experiences in smaller parks," said Vaise, 46, a married father of two.
"But Fort McHenry is the biggest small park," he said of the 43-acre site, noting its bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812 drew 800,000 visitors.
"I was fortunate to be able to do a lot of different jobs there over time," he said.
Vaise decided he "didn't want to be a one-trick pony," so he accepted a temporary detail in Washington in February as a tryout of sorts. The position became official three months later.
National Capital Parks-East includes 13 park sites, parkways and statuary covering more than 8,000 acres of historic, cultural and recreational parklands from Capitol Hill to the Maryland suburbs, according to its website.
His new job involves overseeing a diverse collection of five parks east of the Anacostia River.
The areas he manages are Anacostia Park, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site and the Carter G. Woodson Home, which is being rehabilitated before opening to the public.
Vaise is in charge of interpretation, which he defines as "anything that tells a story." He describes his job as a combination of event planner, tour guide, publicist, teacher and budget analyst.
Ann Honious, deputy superintendent at National Capital Parks-East, said Vaise's strength is his passion.
"Vince is definitely still connected to Baltimore; he loves the park and loves telling its story," said Honious, who worked at an Ohio national park for 15 years. "When you switch to a new park, it's almost rejuvenating to have a new focus, but it doesn't diminish the work you did before."
"There is all new history for me to learn, and I like that challenge," said Vaise, who earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1993 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Baltimoreans are familiar with Douglass, the famous abolitionist, and Woodson was an African-American scholar and author who established a black history week in February, which served as the precursor of Black History Month.
"Bethune was a civil rights leader who laid the groundwork for Martin Luther King and founded the U.S. Council of Negro Women" in 1935, he said. "I have a soft spot for unsung heroes, and very few people know about her."
If anyone thinks rangers are handed scripts about the parks to memorize, Vaise wants you to know that's not how it works.
"I still write all of my own talks," he said, relying on library resources and the NPS archives as well as tagalongs with other rangers, to create original materials.
Ranger Paul Plamann, who has served at Fort McHenry for more than 49 years, said Vaise left his mark on all the written materials and signage at Fort McHenry's new visitor center, which opened in 2011. And, he added, Vaise's positive attitude was a plus.
"He's high-spirited and that rubs off on the staff," Plamann said. "He's the whole package."
One of the facts Vaise liked to share at Fort McHenry is that John Charles Linthicum, a U.S. congressman in the early 1900s who was born in what is now Linthicum Heights, sponsored the 1929 bill to make "The Star-Spangled Banner" the national anthem.
The measure faced much opposition but was ultimately signed into law in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover.
"I love getting kids enthused and intrigued about our history and our parks," Vaise said. "But it goes deeper than that; it's about making them think about their country and what we stand for."
The National Park Service continues to examine how to best serve visitors. "We're at a crossroads with technology and apps changing our [methods of] presentation," Vaise said. "And nearly every park visit begins online.
"But one thing visitors never get tired of is talking to a ranger," he said. "People will always want that human connection."
Despite his lengthy commute these days, Vaise is staying put in Linthicum.
His wife, Ann, with whom he shares a love of American history, works as a librarian for Anne Arundel County. Their children — Anna, 9, and Vince, 5 — can walk to school and regularly visit with grandparents who live nearby.
"Telling the story of Fort McHenry is my biggest legacy in Baltimore," Vaise said. "I'm not there anymore to talk to visitors, but all of the exhibits, panels and signs that I wrote still talk for me."
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