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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.

By Marc Fisher |  January 9, 2009; 8:51 AM ET
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We'll probably see worse changes than this since there has been a recent change in leadership at GW Park.

Posted by: justhere | January 9, 2009 8:59 AM

Personnel issues are private. Maybe the ranger asked for the transfer. Maybe the ranger insists on keeping whatever the reason for the transfer a private matter. This is not an elected position so there really is nothing anybody can do except complain.

Put yourself in the rangers position - do you REALLY want the public to have a say in where you work and what you do?

Marc, will the WaPO take the advise of the public and manage your career according to our wishes?

Posted by: SoMD1 | January 9, 2009 9:39 AM

What a career! Glen Echo is a tiny enterprise compared to one of the big National Parks, but its revival is an astounding accomplishment. Managers from the National Park Service, Forest Service, and the National Wildlife Refuges should perhaps do some weekend volunteer work at Glen Echo to see how it's done.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | January 9, 2009 2:42 PM

SoMD1: You make valid points. However, Sunday's editions of the Post will carry a story that makes it clear that Fowler most certainly did not ask for a transfer, and that he welcomes public interest in his case:

Posted by: universityandpark | January 10, 2009 8:52 PM

Anyone that knows Stan knows how important Glen Echo is to him.
Anyone that knows Glen Echo knows how important Stan has been to it.
SoMD1 provided a knee jerk reaction without knowing the background or reading the article.
I wish the Post article had touched on the entire Glen Echo community of Stan supporters not just the dancers. Thank you Marc for including the entire spectrum. You can add the incredible Washington Folk Festival to that list. We all want Stan to continue as a current part of Glen Echo not just in the past.

Posted by: rightonrhythm | January 11, 2009 2:18 PM

SoMD1 provided a knee jerk reaction without knowing the background or reading the article.

In all fairness, SoMD1 could not have read the article in Sunday's paper without benefit of time travel.

Posted by: universityandpark | January 11, 2009 2:52 PM

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