Vietnam vet carries special torch for Statue of LibertyPosted: Updated:
A 71-year-old decorated Vietnam War veteran carries a torch for one special lady – the Statue of Liberty.
Every day for the last 47 years, Charlie DeLeo sails across New York Harbor to serve as caretaker for Lady Liberty.
His says his devotion inspired not by a job, but by the love of his life.
“Lady Liberty is the inspiration,” he says. “I never get tired of looking at Lady Liberty…It's kind of sacred for anybody who's seen war and the price you've got to pay for freedom.”
As the oldest and longest serving volunteer caretaker of the Statue of Liberty and its grounds, DeLeo is known throughout the world as "The Keeper of The Flame."
He affectionately calls the symbol of independence "The Lady,” and considers her upkeep his mission of honor.
DeLeo's love affair with the Statue of Liberty began in 1957. He was a fourth-grader at P.S. 42 in Lower Manhattan when he first visited Liberty Island on a class trip.
“Next to my mom, the most beautiful lady in the world. But only next to my mom,” he says. “I think her enormity, the colossal size, you know, really inspired me and a woman holding up a torch and flame in her right arm and a tablet in her left arm, July 1776 and I just wanted to care for "The Lady."
After serving in the Vietnam War and earning a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound, the first thing DeLeo did when he came back to the United States was visit "The Lady” in 1968.
The National Park Service hired DeLeo as a maintenance worker in 1972. With nerves of steel, DeLeo scaled Lady Liberty's 151-foot iron skeleton to clean debris and change the floodlights that illuminate the 24-carat gold leaf flame.
He memorized every crevice and every curve of the 31-ton copper monument from head to toe.
“There's a 42-foot ladder inside the right arm so you've got to climb a ladder to get to the top and then there's a door that takes you to the outside,” he says.
The torch has been closed to visitors since 1916, but DeLeo had the key. His duties also included washing the crown's 25 windows and seven spikes and changing the hundreds of bulbs that light up the statue.
After 27 years as the Keeper of the Flame, DeLeo retired from the job in 1999. His retirement lasted only two months because he couldn't get Lady Liberty out of his mind.
“I kind of missed ‘The Lady’ and I called up one of the deputy superintendents, Frank Miller, and said can I come back as a volunteer. He said sure, we'd love to have you back,” he says.
DeLeo's been back at his labor of love ever since.
His payback is a remarkable legacy: 27 years of employment, 22 years as a volunteer, 750 lightbulbs changed and 2,500 trips to the torch.