William Luzerne Brown III, a historian who spent more than three decades helping make history come alive for visitors to National Park Service sites throughout the nation, died Tuesday from renal cancer at Carroll Hospice's Dove House in Westminster.
The longtime Taneytown resident was 71.
Born in Washington, the son of an insurance adjuster and a homemaker, Mr. Brown was a 1956 graduate of Wheaton High School.
"He grew up in the District of Columbia listening to his grandmother's tales about the old days in the nation's capital," said Burt Kummerow, director of the Maryland Historical Society and a friend for 48 years.
"He recalled a story of frightened Civil War residents standing on city roofs and listening to the cannons of nearby battles," said Mr. Kummerow, who got to know Mr. Brown when both were students at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Mr. Brown earned an associate's degree from Montgomery Junior College and served in the Army Signal Corps in Germany from 1958 to 1961.
He earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1964 from Maryland, and also did graduate studies in College Park and at the Smithsonian Institution.
It was while working at the Smithsonian, often called the "Nation's Attic," that Mr. Brown began "putting together his experiences as a living history re-enactor and his fascination with the unmatched artifacts in the Smithsonian collection," Mr. Kummerow said.
At a time while most American museums and historic sites were reverential repositories of historically and culturally significant artifacts, visitors were more or less left on their own when it came time to interpret their importance or understand their larger role in a historical context.
Mr. Brown saw static material in a more kinetic and lively light.
"It just wasn't talking about documents and artifacts, it was also talking about what they meant. It was putting history before the public — or public history — and this was an entirely new idea, and as graduate students at the time, we believed in this," Mr. Kummerow said.
"During those years in the late 1960s, Bill became a respected and early advocate for what is now called 'Public History,' and was an innovative and influential voice in the field for more than four decades," Mr. Kummerow said. "And he and his colleagues were soon sought after for advice about the material lives of our ancestors."
In 1970, Mr. Brown and Mr. Kummerow joined fledgling Maryland Public Television, which had opened its new studios in Owings Mills.
Mr. Brown honed his skills interpreting early American history while working as an executive producer at the station.
"Bill's unique understanding of making history and culture more about people than dates made all the programming he produced interesting to broad audiences," said former MPT producer Vince Clews, who is now an independent writer and film producer.
Mr. Brown was able to indulge his personal passion for the state's history by producing "The Inventory," a national prize-winning drama about life in Colonial Maryland, whose script had been written by Mr. Clews.
"Bill was a great guy that everyone wanted to work with because he had a unique understanding of living history. He really had a special touch and made it come alive," said Mr. Clews.
"Everything about the program had to be an accurate representation of the era. I remember we had to go to Williamsburg to pick up a portmanteau and it had to have a certain stitching pattern," Mr. Clews said, with a laugh. "I don't think we even had a close-up shot of it in the film but Bill insisted on its accuracy."
Mr. Brown left MPT in 1974 when he joined the National Park Service, where during the next 30 years, he became a "major interpretive voice throughout history sites in the national system," Mr. Kummerow said.
In addition to designing interpretive plans, films and exhibits for more than a score of military and civilian parks throughout the country, Mr. Brown was a staff consultant to the Bicentennial celebration in 1976.
The Bicentennial celebration culminated at Yorktown, Va., where Mr. Brown commanded 4,000 re-enactors and 45 pieces of artillery without incident, Mr. Kummerow recalled.
In recent years, he assisted in the planning of the D-Day visitor center at Normandy, France, and a traveling exhibit that commemorated the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial.
Since retiring from the National Park Service in 2004, Mr. Brown worked as an independent consultant on the exhibit master plan for the National Museum of the United States Army in Arlington, Va.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, Mr. Brown led the First Maryland Regiment and the Corps of the Continental Line, re-created Revolutionary War units that performed for three U.S. presidents and traveled abroad to England and France.
The 300 male members of the group authentically interpreted 18th-century tactics and military life and in doing so "revolutionized living history in the process," said Mr. Kummerow, who added that his friend's influence and insistence on historical accuracy was a tremendous influence on today's living historians.
"Bill was the glue and vision that made these interpretive milestones possible," he said. "Without his good-natured charisma, it simply would not have happened."
In addition to acquiring a large library devoted to history, Mr. Brown maintained a collection of authentic 18th- and 19th-century men's clothing.
"He gave lectures on the clothing and let people come who wished to study it," said his wife of 48 years, the former Barbara Schwarz.
Mr. Brown was a member of the Sonrise Community Church of Westminster and Maryland Emmaus.
Plans for an August memorial service were incomplete Friday.
Also surviving are two sons, William L. Brown IV of Taneytown and Robert Burton Brown of Herndon, Va.; a sister, Carole Anne Greenwald of Ellicott City; and six grandchildren.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the name of his wife. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.