WASHINGTON — Lonn Taylor, a Smithsonian Institution historian who was an authority on ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner’’ — both the national anthem and the flag that inspired it — and later became known as a colorful storyteller about life in Texas, died June 26 at his home in Fort Davis, Texas. He was 79.
He had complications from diabetes, his wife, Dedie Taylor, said.
Mr. Taylor, whose academic expertise ranged from Southwestern furniture to Asian culture to vexillology (the study of flags), began his museum career in Texas and came to Washington in 1984 as a historian and director of public programs for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Garrulous, given to laughter, and often dressed in a bow tie, Mr. Taylor was a lively presence during his 18 years at the museum on the National Mall. He had a major role in preparing several of the history museum’s permanent exhibitions, including ‘‘Within These Walls,’’ which opened in 2001.
The exhibit examines 200 years of the nation’s history through the prism of an 18th-century house from Ipswich, Mass., and the people who lived in it: British Colonial subjects, antislavery activists, Irish immigrants, and transplanted Kansans.
‘‘An exhibit is actually a manipulation of concept, artifacts, labels, and design elements into sequential visual elements,’’ Mr. Taylor told the Victoria Advocate, a Texas newspaper, in 2006. ‘‘Developing the concept is the hardest part. You have to boil your story down to basics.’’
One of Mr. Taylor’s most renowned projects involved the US flag that flew at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry after a battle in the War of 1812. Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer, was aboard a British ship during the battle, attempting to negotiate the release of a prisoner.
By the dawn’s early light on Sept. 14, 1814, Key saw the 30-by-42-foot flag waving triumphantly and began to write the words of what he eventually named ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ When the Smithsonian was given the flag in 1907, its size had been trimmed to about 30-by-34 feet by souvenir hunters. One of its 15 stars had been cut out.
Mr. Taylor did much of the primary research on the history of the flag, which was sewn by Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore, and on Key’s composition of what became the national anthem. He published a book about the flag in 2000.
For years, the Fort McHenry flag greeted visitors near the entrance of the Museum of American History, but it grew increasingly faded and fragile with time. After an eight-year preservation effort, the flag was put back on display in 2008 in a climate-controlled chamber with low lighting and interactive screens.
Although he was long retired from the museum, Mr. Taylor appeared on ‘‘The Colbert Report’’ in 2014 on the 200th anniversary of the Fort McHenry battle. Just in case host Stephen Colbert asked, Mr. Taylor memorized all four verses of Key’s ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’’
Lonn Wood Taylor was born Jan. 22, 1940, in Spartanburg, S.C., where his father was working as a highway engineer. (“If I had been born in Texas,’’ Mr. Taylor told the Lone Star Literary Life website in 2018, ‘‘I would be a fifth-generation Texan.”)
He moved in 1946 with his parents and a grandmother to the Philippines, where his father found work. After nine years, the family returned to the United States and Mr. Taylor completed high school in Fort Worth.
He graduated in 1961 from Texas Christian University and entered a graduate program in Southeast Asian studies at New York University. After a year, he moved to Austin, Texas, renting a garage apartment next to a group of musicians, including singer Janis Joplin, with whom he became friends.
Mr. Taylor abandoned his academic studies, dabbled in journalism, and wrote speeches for politicians. He made a failed attempt at running a pecan orchard.
He finally found his niche when he helped prepare exhibits for HemisFair, a world’s fair held in 1968 in San Antonio. Two years later, he became director of the Winedale Historical Complex, a group of historical buildings affiliated with the University of Texas. He later became a curator at the Dallas Historical Society and, from 1980 to 1984, was deputy director of the Museum of New Mexico. He published books on historic furniture of Texas and New Mexico and was the guest curator of a 1983 exhibit at the Library of Congress about the American cowboy.
His marriages to Mary Lou Mueller and Diane Greene ended in divorce. He leaves his wife of 31 years, the former Edith ‘‘Dedie’’ Uunila, a longtime editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, of Fort Davis.
After he retired from the Smithsonian in 2002, Mr. Taylor moved with his wife and 14,000 pounds of books to Fort Davis, about 20 miles from the artsy West Texas town of Marfa. He began to write a weekly column, ‘‘Rambling Boy,’’ about Texas history, writers, and humor, published since 2003 in the Big Bend Sentinel.
He developed a wider following by reading his columns on Marfa’s public radio station, KRTS, delivering them in a scratchy tenor drawl.
‘‘Lonn was, clearly and indisputably, the best storyteller Texas had,’’ writer Joe Nick Patoski said in an interview. ‘‘The power of storytelling came very naturally to him.’’
Mr. Taylor collected many of his columns in books, including ‘‘Texas, My Texas,’’ ‘‘Turning the Pages of Texas,’’ and ‘‘Marfa for the Perplexed’’ — a title chosen because of tourists who ‘‘came to Marfa because they read about it in The New York Times, and now that they are there they can’t figure out what the town is all about.’’
Shortly before his death, Mr. Taylor completed a memoir about his childhood in the Philippines.
‘‘I have spent countless hours listening to oddballs tell me their stories in bars, cafes, bus stations, and on the porches of country stores,’’ Mr. Taylor wrote in the introduction to his 2014 book, ‘‘Texas People, Texas Places,’’ ‘‘and for the most part they have been rewarding hours.’’