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`Keeper of the Flame’ carries a torch for `The Lady’

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Charlie DeLeo always felt he was destined to work inside the Statue of Liberty.

DeLeo, who has cleaned and polished the statue and taken care of her lights for 26 years, will be honored Friday night as one of six Freedom Award winners from America's Freedom Festival at Provo.

He affectionately calls the symbol of freedom "The Lady." He knows she is only made of metal, but he said, "Sure, I talk to her. I kind of believe she is entwined in my spirit. She has a spirit because liberty and freedom have a spirit."

Like Lady Liberty, DeLeo also calls himself by another name that suits him.

He is known throughout the world as "The Keeper of Flame," because he cleans and cares for the 16 floodlights in the flame area of the statue.

"Just below the crown there is a little gate that you unlock," he said. Next, DeLeo scales the 42-foot ladder that leads him to the top of her arm. The 50-year-old ventures up here once a week to check the 250-watt floodlights that surround the circular catwalk. They go on automatically every night.

It all began when DeLeo first visited Liberty Island with his fourth-grade class in 1957.

"I remember when I was climbing to the crown on the spiral stairs how badly I wanted to go to the flame," he said. He said he asked his teacher if the arm was open, but she said it was closed.

"At that time the belief in schools was that the arm had cracked once and that visitors had fallen out of the arm," DeLeo said.

However, this isn't true. The arm was closed to visitors in 1916 during World War I and not reopened for decades. Also, DeLeo said, this area was never meant for the public because there is only one way up and down.

After returning from the Vietnam War in March 1968, he prayed, "Dear God, I would give my right arm to get up there just one time."

His silent prayer was answered four years later. One day in 1972, he asked for a job and was hired as a maintenance worker.

That year, DeLeo became the first person to visit the arm in 56 years.

Soon after he started secretly visiting the statue's arm. DeLeo's supervisor, after hearing DeLeo was going up inside the arm, asked if he wanted to be responsibile for the torch area.

DeLeo told his supervisor, "I would pay you for the honor. Shortly thereafter, I started calling myself the Keeper of the Flame."

Viewing his surroundings from the top of the Statue of Liberty, "I was overwhelmed by the magnificent beauty of the Manhattan harbor, the skyline and the tremendous view of the island," he said.

One unforgettable person DeLeo took to the torch was a young volunteer whose wrists were twisted. He always wanted to go up, but he did not think he could climb because of his hands, DeLeo said.

"I showed him how to wrap his hands around (the ladder), and even though it was awkward, I would not let him quit," he said. "He felt like a million dollars when he made it. I made sure I had a camera.

His saddest moment at the torch was in 1974 when his mother was dying of cancer and he prayed to God.

"I asked God if you cannot spare her, then take her because she is suffering," DeLeo said.

The next day his mother died at age 48.

When he is not working as Keeper of the Flame, DeLeo spends his eight-hour workdays checking, cleaning and polishing 800 fluorescent lights and their fixtures.

The weekly climb to the torch involves more than tidying up for DeLeo.

"I pray up there. I always feel God's presence," he said. "I think about other countries that are not as blessed as we are with freedom."

He also ponders the homeless, pollution, nature and the mountains.

The beauty of Utah is one reason DeLeo decided to accept the Freedom Award. He has been offered many awards over the past 10 years, but he has not flown because of ear pain from an injury he suffered in Vietnam. While in Provo for five days, he wants to see nothing but nature.

"Nature, that's what the good Lord intended for men and women." He said he might even settle down in a place like Utah that is far from the noise of New York.

DeLeo said Tuesday, during a phone interview, that he was also excited about a balloon ride he would get early Friday morning at the Balloon Fest.

During his 26 years with Lady Liberty, DeLeo said he has learned about life.

"Every day is a blessing that God grants to us," he said. "We ought to live life. I knew my calling was from God. Don't be a quitter in today's world; there are too many quitters."

He said because America has become more materialistic and God has been removed from the schools, patriotism has lost something since he went to New York public schools.

"The only hope for America is to return to basic values and accept God's will," he said. "I know freedom is a sacred calling from God."