From a scrappy New York youth to a Vietnam Veteran to the Statue of Liberty’s “Keeper of the Flame,” Charlie DeLeo has lived it all.
If you’ve ever set foot in New York City at night and glanced across the Upper Bay at Lady Liberty, you’d see that her torch burns bright. From 1972 to 1999, you had Charlie DeLeo to thank for that awe-inspiring sight.
Known as the “Keeper of the Flame,” DeLeo was responsible for ensuring the light bulbs—some 22 stories up—were changed. He accomplished this every day, rain or wind or shine, so that when people see the statue they are left with a sense of hope. DeLeo believes this spirit embodies the best of what America offers.
One might say that DeLeo himself is synonymous with the best of America: he has always endeavored to give whenever and whatever he can. He gave first when, at 17, he gained his parent’s permission to enlist in the Marine Corps. His poor eyesight required a waiver, and he was limited to duties as a cook.
In Vietnam, DeLeo was desperate for a transfer to the infantry. He believed in his heart that he was a rifleman, but learned quickly that, when in a war zone or combat situation, no task is menial and it takes the work of everyone to ensure success. He believed that honor comes from hard work, determination and devotion.
When eligible, DeLeo submitted for transfer, but soon found himself in a construction unit—not the infantry. But he found excitement there when, one night in Phu Bai, three Marines were killed and 52 were injured during a mortar attack. DeLeo was among the injured; he took shrapnel to his leg.
With Lady Liberty
During his recovery, DeLeo saw the bodies of dead Marines waiting to be transported back home. It was on the Khe Sanh airstrip when DeLeo decided that he had seen enough. He received a Purple Heart upon returning home, then—in uniform—went to visit Lady Liberty. The statue had always been special to DeLeo, ever since he took a trip there in fourth grade. He wanted to see the torch up close but wasn’t permitted when he got there.
About four years later, while between jobs, DeLeo again went to see the Statue of Liberty, and on impulse, asked about a job. He was told that they were looking for a maintenance guy and that he should ask about it. He did, and he was hired. But it wasn’t until a few months into his position that he took on his iconic role.
DeLeo’s boss had got wind that he was sneaking up into the torch, where no one ever went and weren’t supposed to go. Instead of being let go, his boss gave him the task of caring for the torch. From then on DeLeo became the “Keeper of the Flame.”
The “Keeper of the Flame” ensures the Lady’s torch is ship shape, changing out bulbs and cleaning the encasement when necessary. With this role, DeLeo became something of a celebrity, having several articles written about him, and one time appearing on a game show. In 1998 he won a Freedom Award from America’s Freedom Festival at Provo, and he’s even had a book written about his life, called Charlie DeLeo: Keeper of the Flame, by William C. Armstrong.
Thank you for your service, Charlie DeLeo!
Writer: Jessica Davis
Editor: Micayla Costa
Graphics: Jessica Hunsinger