Living on through art

Gone, but nev­er for­gottten: The nearly com­plete mur­al in hon­or of Mi­chael Strange is shown at Clear­field and Bel­grade streets in Fishtown. GREG PACANA / FOR THE TIMES

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 Caf&ea­cute; 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 mi­chael­strange­found­a­

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