Feds Spin Dancing Ranger Out Of The Park
When Glen Echo Park fell into such grave disrepair that portions of the old grounds and buildings were cordoned off as a public hazard, Stan Fowler realized that the only way the former amusement park along the Potomac River would ever be saved was to find people who loved the place.
And if those people didn't exist, Fowler would make it his calling in life to instill that love in those who never knew much about a quirky little park that ended its life as a commercial entertainment back in 1968.
Fowler, known to thousands of Washington area residents as the Dancing Park Ranger, has been summarily transferred away from Glen Echo after more than 30 years of work there, and devoted members of the many subcultures that have thrived at the revived park are rallying around the man they consider the savior of their beloved playscape.
The National Park Service has reassigned Fowler to its Virginia district, effective this week, according to John James, deputy superintendent of the service's George Washington Memorial Parkway division, which includes Glen Echo and many smaller sites on the Virginia side of the river. James wouldn't tell me why Fowler is being moved, saying that he is not allowed to talk about personnel matters. But he said "the norm" in the Park Service "is that people do move around. Generally speaking, internal reassignments are every few years."
But Fowler has been at Glen Echo since 1978, when he started as a part-time summer ranger, running the sound board for the park's Chautauqua Summer Concert series. Over the course of all those years, he has won the hearts and allegiance of the swing dancers, waltzers, Irish dancers, contra dancers, folkies, carousel buffs, local history nuts, picnickers and all manner of puppeteers, glass blowers and other artists who think of Glen Echo as their special place.
Fowler's fans are petitioning the Park Service to reinstate their favorite ranger, not only because they like him and want him around, but because they see him as the protector of a park that has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, including the reconstruction of 1920s amusement park features such as the Bumper Car Pavilion and the Spanish Ballroom. Fowler "is currently involved in adapting his videograph interpretation of the park for use by deaf and hard of hearing patrons," Fowler supporter Sarah Fulton, a dancer and volunteer who has worked with the ranger for years, wrote to the Park Service. "I recall his taking college level courses in barn architecture that contributed to the plans to rehabilitate the Bumper Car Pavilion."
Fowler is credited with recruiting hundreds of volunteers who put in thousands of hours of work salvaging the amusement park buildings and signs, as well as creating new facilities for non-profit arts groups that make their homes at Glen Echo.
The park is maintained mainly by a non-profit organization, the Glen Echo Partnership for Arts and Culture, which assumed that job from the Park Service in 2002. Its director, Katey Boerner, tells me that Fowler "is very well loved--he's a creative, amazing guy." The Partnership doesn't have an official position on Fowler's transfer, but Boerner joins many park users in crediting the ranger with playing a crucial role in changing the dynamic of the place and getting the various rehab projects moving.
Budget cuts appear to be the culprit behind Fowler's move, as the number of rangers at Glen Echo has been dropping in recent years. Rangers now mainly give tours and work on documenting the history of the park and its extensive dance programs.
Fowler, according to park volunteer Steve Satterfield, is "the Tom Sawyer of Glen Echo Park--convincing people enjoying a late Friday night dance in the ballroom that they should get up early the next day to help 'paint the fence.'"
All the deputy superintendent would tell me about the outpouring of public support for Fowler is that he's aware of the letters and emails and plans to respond. "We'll take care of that," James says. The chief says he knows where Fowler is being transferred to, but "that's private information."
When a public employee plays such a prominent role in the life of a community, the public agency ought to be more forthcoming than that. Hiding behind personnel rules won't hack it. Maybe the Park Service has a good reason for moving Fowler, but no one connected with the park seems to know of any rationale for the transfer. Many folks who came together to find new passions courtesy of a great ranger think they deserve some answers.
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