One of the realities of living in a free country is that many young people are called upon to put their lives on the line to defend that freedom.
One such individual was 25-year-old Michael Strange, who grew up in Wissinoming, attended St. Bartholomew grade school, and graduated in 2004 from North Catholic High School. His family has strong ties to Fishtown — his father, Charlie, works for SugarHouse Casino, his grandmother lived there for many years, and his aunt, Maggie O’Brien, is president of the Fishtown Action Committee.
In August 2011, Strange was on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan and was serving in a support role with Navy SEAL Team 6, the same team that had carried out the mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
On Aug. 6 of that year, Strange was killed, along with 30 other U.S. military troops, in Eastern Afghanistan, when Taliban insurgents shot down their Chinook helicopter.
However, his story does not end there.
Now, thanks to men like Jim Fenerty, owner of Celtic Shirts, 2537 E. Clearfield St., Mike Hanson, a friend of Michael’s father and the coordinator of the Philadelphia chapter of Vets Journey Home, and Zack Bird, a local artist, Strange will now be honored with a sprawling mural on the northeast corner of Clearfield and Belgrade streets in Port Richmond.
Work on the almost complete mural began in October and will be finished in time for the official dedication on June 7, 2014.
The wall for the mural was donated by Fenerty, and is located on the Clearfield Street side of the Celtic Shirts building. On the Belgrade street side of the business hangs a large flag honoring Michael’s service in Afghanistan.
The idea for the mural came from Hanson, who lives in Port Richmond. Hanson, along with Charlie Strange, founded the Philadelphia chapter of Vets Journey Home, a nonprofit volunteer-based organization founded in Maryland in 2009 and dedicated to helping veterans and their families heal from the devastation of their experiences in war.
The Philadelphia chapter of VJH was founded in July 2012 and is currently the fastest growing chapter of VJH in the country.
“Michael Strange is a national hero, and it’s very important that people not forget his service,” Hanson said. “Not only did Michael make the ultimate sacrifice by dying for his country, but even in death, Michael continues to touch people and help others to heal both through [The Michael Strange Foundation] and through the local chapter of Vets Journey Home.”
Charlie Strange created the Michael Strange Foundation in 2012. It provides services to other families of fallen veterans.
Hanson approached Fenerty with the idea for the mural, and said Fenerty — a former Marine and Archbishop Ryan graduate — was happy to donate the Clearfield Street wall of his company. The next step was to find an artist to do the mural, and raise the necessary money.
Hanson went online and found a Philadelphia artist, Zack Bird. Bird was born and raised in Philadelphia, and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Bird has worked all over the country and in Mexico and Puerto Rico. He has done murals for the Trump Marina, the Hard Rock Café and the famous Palm restaurants.
“I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I looked at it as a gift to be asked to do this for Michael’s family and for the neighborhood,” said Bird when asked his reaction to being approached to create the mural.
“When opportunities like this come along, it’s our job to recognize them when they do,” he continued.
In addition, Bird agreed to do the entire job at no cost. A mural this size, roughly 15 by 15 feet, would normally cost around $8,000, but Bird did the entire project at no charge.
One of the first people to get a look at the mural in sketch format was Strange’s aunt, Maggie O’Brien.
“When Mike Hanson emailed me the sketch, it literally took my breath away. The artist had captured Michael so perfectly. It was as if he was looking at me. It is amazing and beautiful,” said O’Brien.
The mural is not entirely complete. Bird still needs to add a few more details, including Strange’s gravestone and a falcon, the mascot of Northeast Catholic High School.
Hanson and the Strange family are planning an official dedication for the mural to be held on Saturday, June 7 of next year — Michael’s birthday is June 6. There will be a Mass in the morning, and the family said they are hoping to have traffic blocked off at the intersection of Clearfield and Belgrade. Port Richmond bugler Ed Bilger will be there to play “Taps,” and state Rep. John Taylor (R-177th dist.) is expected to attend.
The artist, meanwhile, said his artwork in honor of Strange is very meaningful.
“I want people to bring their children to see this mural, and I want them to look at the image of Mike and reflect on what it means for a young man to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country,” said Bird. ••
To learn more about the Michael Strange Foundation, visit michaelstrangefoundation.org.