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Fort McHenry ranger can't stay retired even after 50-year career

Park Ranger Paul Plamann, aka "the Old Ranger, " retired in July after serving 50 years at Fort McHenry, largely as a living-history actor. He has decided to continue his service as a volunteer. (Michael Ares, Baltimore Sun video)

Will Goggins was about to leave the visitors' center at Fort McHenry National Monument and Shrine when he ran into an elderly gentleman in an 18th century striped waistcoat, tan linen breeches and a pair of black buckled shoes.

"What's your name?" Goggins asked politely.

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"Oh, my name is Dr. William Beanes," the man replied. "You may not know me, but I'm a friend of Francis Scott Key. The British took me captive just before the battle over this fort, and that's how Frank and I became witnesses to the 25-hour bombardment that followed."

And as he has for half a century, 79-year-old Paul Plamann proceeded to unfurl a little-known tale from the history of the famed site.

The man known to generations of colleagues as "The Old Ranger" retired July 1 after a 50-year career at the national park in Baltimore. But he was back in action recently, reprising his popular role as Beanes in his new guise as a part-time volunteer.

He now plans to volunteer Tuesdays at Fort McHenry and Saturdays at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson.

Plamann was gone just a month, but that didn't stop co-workers from celebrating his return.

"Paul's knowledge and spirit when it comes to the story here are so profound, and he has this gift for conveying that story to visitors from preschool age on up," said Andrew Stritch, a 20-year volunteer. "We couldn't do what we do the same way without him."

In his years at Fort McHenry, Plamann has done everything from run the 16-mm projector on which the park once showed documentary films to co-founding the Fort McHenry Guard, the battalion of rangers and volunteers that dress in period garb to enact the site's award-winning living history performances.

He has fired period cannons and flintlock rifles, greeted, entertained and answered the questions of hundreds of thousands of guests, trained generations of aspiring rangers, taken part in two bicentennial celebrations (one for the nation in 1976, the other for the fort itself in 2014), and met seven U.S. presidents.

Tina Capetta, the superintendent of the Fort McHenry and Hampton national parks, said Plamann is more than just her go-to expert on logistical, managerial and historic questions that date back more than a few years. More than that, she said, he does everything he does with unfailing courtesy and good humor.

"In all my time with Paul, I've never heard him say a single unkind word about anyone, and I've never heard anyone say an unkind word about him," she said. "In that sense, he's absolutely the consummate park ranger."

Yet it was a career that might easily never have happened.

Born the son of a Lutheran pastor in tiny Dickinson, N.D., Plamann grew up, by turns, in Toledo, Ohio; Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, where his father took a job as a military chaplain in the 1950s.

History fascinated him, but that interest provided little direction. He enlisted in the military in 1962, completed training at the U.S. Army Intelligence School at the now-defunct Fort Holabird in Baltimore, and served in California and Japan.

Plamann was visiting relatives in Portland, Ore., when they took him to visit Fort Clatsop National Memorial, the site of an encampment used by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the winter of 1805 and 1806.

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A ranger gave him a brochure of parks across the country, and Plamann — a Civil War buff who had considered applying for work at Antietam or Gettysburg — was "flabbergasted to be reminded that I have a national park in my own back yard. I had completely forgotten about Fort McHenry," he said with a laugh.

On May 22, 1967, he got the job operating the projector on which the park showed the story of The Star-Spangled Banner.

As Plamann recalled, the film was a one-man show that starred a New York character actor as Beanes, the elderly Prince George's County physician who was captured at his home in Upper Marlboro shortly after the Battle of Bladensburg. By the time the fictional Beanes finished telling the tale of the American victory in the Battle of Baltimore, the hoisting of the flag the next morning, and Key's poem that became the national anthem, the new recruit was in tears.

"I'm a patriotic person, and it's certainly a stirring story," Plamann said.

He has now played the doctor in two films: the 15-minute documentary that now serves as introduction to the fort tour, and "Star-Spangled Banner: Anthem of Liberty," an IMAX movie made in 2014.

Plamann also learned something he would share with generations of visitors — that the anthem story is but one chapter of the fort's history.

The citizens of Baltimore Town built the installation in 1776 as an earthen star fort known as Fort Whetstone, he said, but the British never attacked it during the Revolutionary War.

State and federal units trained there before seeing action in the Mexican War in the mid-1840s. Union troops used it to house Confederate prisoners in the Civil War, the Army turned it into a 3,000-bed hospital during World War I, and the Coast Guard used it as a training facility during World War II.

Even now, he pointed out, a Naval Reserve recruiting center occupies land just to the north.

"A lot of people don't realize that there has been a military presence on that point of land ever since 1776," Plamann said with an unmistakable hint of pride.

There are some things you have to see or do for yourself at least once -- and Maryland has no shortage of them. Start checking things off your list. These are

Little by little, the work sank roots into his life.

In 1968, the official historian at Fort McHenry decided Plamann should learn the then-emerging field of living history, in which interpreters and reenactors dress and speak as figures from years gone by to bring the past to life. He was dispatched to a National Park Service training center at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., for a crash course.

He learned to fire a flintlock musket, mastered the details of the military uniforms of the War of 1812 and prepared for a long-running act in which he would perform as an infantry sergeant while another ranger portrayed a private.

The two-man attraction was so new at the time that The Baltimore Sun covered it in a Sunday spread: "Old Fort Comes Alive."

Plamann and several colleagues started the Fort McHenry Guard in 1982.

Eight years ago, then-National Park Service Historian Vince Vaise persuaded Plamann to take on the role of Beanes, the friend of Key who was captured and imprisoned in the hold of H.M.S. Tonnant on the Chesapeake Bay.

Key, a young lawyer at the time, was visiting the vessel as an envoy of President James Madison to seek Beanes' release as the Battle of Baltimore began.

"So can you see, if it weren't for my capture by the British, you might never have sung the words 'O, say can you see?' '' Plamann tells park visitors.

Capetta, who started at Fort McHenry in 2011, is still astonished that Plamann met every president from Gerald R. Ford through Barack Obama, who thanked him for his years of service.

Those years seemed to be at an end a month ago. Ninety friends, colleagues and former co-workers attended a retirement dinner at the fort in Plamann's honor.

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Plamann trotted out one of his favorite lines for the occasion: "When I started at Fort McHenry, I was younger than Key [was in 1814], and now I'm older than Beanes," he said. But even that performance failed to mark the end of his work.

He has been visiting the fort every few days to cart away junk from his crowded desk.

"This is a labor of love," he said. "I suppose it was hard to stay away."

Goggins was one of the many visitors Plamann spoke with a recent day that held special significancen more ways than one.

It happened to be Francis Scott Key's 238th birthday — a fact "Dr. Beanes" mentioned repeatedly.

He brought in a cake for the occasion, a tradition he has maintained for years, and lit the red, white and blue candles himself.

Goggins, for one, said he's glad the ranger is back.

"I had never heard of Dr. Beanes, and I'm glad I know the story." he said. "You know, for a minute there, I couldn't tell if the man was acting."

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