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Charlie DeLeo: Lady Liberty's Keeper

CBN.com "She's the most recognized symbol in all the world," says Charlie DeLeo, "and Lady Liberty is the most photographed structure in all the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Lady Liberty is No. 1, No. 1 one in the world.

Charlie DeLeo is very sentimental about Lady Liberty, and with good reason. He has 31 years of memories serving as the Statue of Liberty's "Keeper of the Flame".

"She means a lot to a lot of people," he says. "She speaks a silent, universal language of hope. I think she personifies everything that is good and decent about America."

Charlie is a native New Yorker. The first time he visited the Statue of Liberty up close was in 1957 when he was 9 years old. The impression Lady Liberty made on him was indelible.

Says Charlie, "I've seen the sun rise from the torch, and I've seen the sun set. Which is my favorite? I'll take the sunrise."

In 1966 he joined the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam, earning the Purple Heart for bravery. It was in Vietnam, the Da Nang Hospital to be exact, when Charlie believed God spoke to him about his service to his country. Charlie had believed in Jesus Christ since his childhood, but in Vietnam he began to understand what he was designed to do.

"When I came home from Vietnam in 1968, I had to see the Lady, the Statue of Liberty," Charlie recalls. "I had my Marine Corps uniform on, my ribbons on from Vietnam. I was the first one off the Circle Line Boat and beat a thousand people up to the crown. I wanted to go for the torch, and I figured since I was a Vietnam veteran, go for it."

To Charlie's disappointment, he wasn't given permission to climb the narrow ladder up the Statue of Liberty's arm to reach the torch.

"I looked up at the torch and said, 'Dear God, before I die, can You get me up there one time, one time in my life to the torch?' He heard that prayer."

In March 1972, while out of work, Charlie decided to visit Lady Liberty and on a whim asked for a job. He got it! Charlie has been the "Keeper of the Flame" longer than anyone in the history of the Statue of Liberty. He has made the 151-foot climb more than 2,500 times in his career.

"I'm a professional," he says, "and I know that God is watching over me. I do my best and keep the old Girl spic and span."

Over 800 bulbs keep the Statue of Liberty lit up, and Charlie was the man who regularly changed them. He also cared for the original torch and the new improved version that was put in place on July 4, 1984.

"Thanks to these guys [seagulls], I get on the golden flame to wash it down," he says. "No more since I've retired, but I enjoyed it."

In fact, Charlie was photographed by Parade magazine as he stood on top of the torch waving the American flag.

Charlie DeLeo on the Statue of Liberty's flame"To wave the flag like I did for Parade magazine on top of the golden flame was my tribute to America because I love America," he says, adding, "No, I wasn't tethered. I'd go and stand on top of the flame without a hook up. I've done that a few times. People think I'm a little nuts. I don't think you could be the 'Keeper of the Flame' without that kind of daring."

In 31 years Charlie has seen more history being made than most people -- namely the building of the Twin Towers and their demise.

"When I started in March 1972," Charlie explains, "the South Tower was completely up. The North Tower was up to 80 stories with about 30 stories to go. So I saw the rest of the North Tower go up from the torch."

And then came September 11, 2001.

"The first thing I saw was the North Tower with the big 300-foot tower on fire," he says. "The flames were shooting out. I'd never seen a fire this big. First thing I did was I knelt down right here and said, 'Please, Lord, help those people in those towers.' Ten minutes later we heard the sound of the second plane, and I didn't have time to look at the Statue. At that time I thought Lady Liberty would be next, that I'd be seeing her for the last time."

Today, Charlie works as a volunteer on Liberty Island. Make no bones about it: he's the real thing -- daring, patriotic, and the most photographed "Keeper of the Flame" in the history of the Statue of Liberty.

"That's everything about my life," Charlie concludes. "God did it all. I owe it all to God and Jesus Christ my Savior."

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