As a Secret Service agent assigned to protect Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001, Dan Esmond witnessed firsthand the events of Sept. 11 while on duty at the Pentagon. Still affected years later by the emotional upheaval of that day, he vowed to make a difference.
In 2007, he decided to work at reigniting in his fellow citizens the same profound love of country that had risen from the ashes of 9/11 and enveloped the nation.
"I drove home from work one day and told my wife, 'I know what I want to do with my life. I want to start a foundation dedicated to the national anthem,'" said the 16-year resident of Woodbine.
To encourage people to "teach the story, celebrate the song," Esmond launched the National Anthem Celebration Foundation, which partnered this month with the Maryland Historical Society to bring Francis Scott Key's original handwritten manuscript to a March 1 legislative reception in Annapolis, the first time the document had left Baltimore in nearly 200 years.
Patriotism is a powerful force for Esmond, who now serves as a federal agent in Rockville. So strongly does he identify with the anthem's story and the still-waving flag as a symbol of the nation's strength that he wants everyone else to revere the four verses of "The Star-Spangled Banner" the way he does.
"Dan can't even talk about the national anthem without it bringing tears to his eyes," said his wife, Mary, a former business executive who serves as the nonprofit organization's executive director.
He started the foundation from his home in 2009, just after he'd decided to leave the Secret Service to avoid a job transfer out of state.
He'd applied 10 times before being accepted into the Secret Service and it had been his dream job since he was 11 years old. It was then, nearly 30 years ago, that he made his first promise to himself to make his life count after watching on television as an agent took a bullet for President Ronald Reagan.
But he and his wife didn't want to take their two preteen daughters out of the well-regarded Howard County public school system, nor stray far from the anthem's Baltimore birthplace, so he decided to resign.
The nonprofit organization he founded is dedicated "to increasing public awareness, education and appreciation … in celebrating the song that identifies the land of the free and the home of the brave," according to its mission statement at osaycanyousee.org.
"This is not just a poem or words on paper and it's not about glorifying war. It's about standing up and defending ourselves against invading forces," he said. "We need to pass this legacy on to our children and others or we'll lose it."
The private Annapolis function — which featured the manuscript in a bullet-resistant, argon gas-filled display case — tugged on the same heartstrings as the film "National Treasure," which focuses on the historic importance of the original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence, Esmond said.
"Mary and I were a two-person show in arranging the event, but she was the one who'd figured out the timeline," he said, referring to the manuscript's three-month installation at Fort McHenry beginning March 3, which was the 80th anniversary of the song's designation as our national anthem.
"It was interesting to learn how many people present at the event weren't aware that the manuscript was housed in Baltimore," Mary said, adding the couple has used their project to educate Caroline, 12, and Georgia, 10.
Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society, called the events surrounding the loan of the manuscript "a huge shot in the arm for us" and said his organization will join forces with NAC again to sponsor more events and promote public awareness.
"We're always eager to get this document out to the people as best we can as it describes an experience that made the U.S. more whole than it had ever been before," he said. "We came out of the war with great symbols and we never looked back.
"The song went 'viral' in its day, going from Richmond to Philadelphia to New York and all over the place," Kummerow said. "It may be hard to sing, but it's incredible when it's sung right."
Esmond had the lyrics printed on the back of oversized business cards for the event and also distributed a small pamphlet he'd written on historic events leading up to Key's writing "The Defence of Fort McHenry," which was later renamed and set to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," an English drinking song, he said.
"When the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club performed the anthem at our event, I asked everyone not to sing but just to listen," so they'd feel the full force of the three verses that are rarely sung, he said.
State Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican who represents western Howard County and sits on the NAC board, called the foundation a "great endeavor built on a deep love for our nation."