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The Michael Strange Memorial Mural Unveiled in Port Richmond

Many people know Michael Strange’s story. People from all over the world know Michael as a Navy Cryptologist who served with the prestigious and elite SEAL Team 6.  They know that Michael was one of thirty Americans killed in action in a helicopter crash on August 6, 2011 in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Michael is an American hero who gave everything defending his country.

That story continues, as Strange’s family is working to shed light on the circumstances surrounding their son’s death and the deaths of all others killed in the crash. Many are skeptical that the black box from the crash was never found, and that the rescue mission was unnecessary in the first place. This is the heart wrenching part of Michael’s story, and it is far from over. People still have a lot of unanswered questions.

However, there is another story to be told – a brighter side of Michael’s story. Residents from Fishtown, Port Richmond, and other Philadelphia neighborhoods know Michael as a kid from the block. They know Michael as a son, a friend, a student of North Catholic. Michael’s personality and heart made him stand out long before he joined the Navy.

On Saturday, June 7 (the day after what would have been Michael’s 28th birthday), people from all over gathered to remember Michael for all that he was. First, a memorial mass was said at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Fishtown. Afterwards, a memorial mural for Michael Strange was officially unveiled in Port Richmond at the corner of Belgrade and Clearfield on the wall of Celtic Shirts, a local t-shirt shop owned by the Fenerty family. Father Neil Kilty, who taught for decades at North Catholic, started the ceremony with a few words about Mike’s sacrifice and an opening prayer. The street was lined with veterans from the Warrior Brotherhood Motorcycle Club. Neighbors, firefighters, police, and politicians crowded the block as they waited for the curtain in front of the mural to drop.

The mural was painted by Zack Bird of Bird Studio (www.birdstudio.com). Zack studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Studio Incamminati. His work can be seen throughout the U.S., London, and Latin America. Bird donated his time working on the Michael Strange mural.  In reference to donating his time, Zack said it was a “no-brainer”, since Michael gave the ultimate sacrifice. Zack said he spent a great deal of time studying Michael Strange’s face, meditating on that sacrifice. Bird worked from a picture of Michael looking back over his shoulder, eyebrows raised, with a smile that seemed both lighthearted and maybe even a little mischievous. The photo referenced was Michael’s mother’s favorite.

Bird was recruited for the project by Michael Hanson, Sr. Hanson is a Port Richmond resident and Archbishop Ryan alum (although he donned a North Catholic shirt on Saturday). Hanson introduced each speaker at the mural unveiling ceremony, including his son, Michal Hanson, Jr. Mike Junior was stationed in the same region of Afghanistan as Michael Strange at a different time. Hanson never met him. However, he attested to what a dangerous region it was, and called Strange a brother. He went on to explain that all members of all branches of the military are brothers.

Several other people spoke at the ceremony, including Congressman Bob Brady, State Representative John Taylor, and 6th District Councilman Bobby Henon. Brady called Michael Strange an “Ultimate Warrior” and swore he would continue to look for answers surrounding his death. He also made a promise to fight for top-notch healthcare for all veterans returning from war. Henon asked attendees to tell their children about Michael when they pass by the mural, saying, “Tell your kids to talk about his commitment and what he did for his country.”

By all accounts, Michael Strange was a generous and fun-loving young man who never lost his sense of humor, in spite of living and working in Afghanistan- one of the most hostile environments on the planet. All who knew Michael said that he always stuck up for the underdog.

At the ceremony, a couple of his friends spoke about Michael Strange. Joe, who knew him since he was in diapers, read a letter that Strange wrote when he was two weeks into boot camp. In the letter, Strange wrote about an anthrax scare that turned out to be Altoid mints in an envelope. You could hear Michael’s sense of humor through his words. His buddy Joe concluded by saying, “There’s not a day that goes by that he’s not missed by so many.”

I remember Mike Strange as a student at North Catholic. I never taught him, but his senior year was my first year teaching at the school. I remember him in the hallways. He had a reputation as a prankster, but teachers loved him.

His science teacher, Peggy Schweikert-Kavalkovich recalled, “He was always trying to make you laugh to get you off track in class. Someone gave me his 8th grade picture, and I attached it to a ruler. When he would start, I had the rule: Mike can only talk when the Mike stick is up. Needless to say, one day the picture was taped up so high that I couldn’t reach it. So Mike said it meant he had all period to talk!” Peggy still has that photo.

Nancy Caldwell worked in the administrative offices at North Catholic for many years. She stated, “I remember the day Michael came back to North after he officially became a Navy Seal. He was so proud that he was beaming, and we were all so proud of him.”

Michael’s father, Charlie Strange, told stories of his son’s off-the-wall pranks, but he also spoke about his growth as a man. “Michael achieved things better than I could have ever believed,” his father said with great pride. Charlie also spoke about Mike’s pride in his city, stating, “This country was built from Philadelphia and the people in this city…and now Michael got a piece of that.”

Before the ceremony’s conclusion of bagpipes and bugle, Michael Strange’s Aunt Maggie came to the podium. “Michael was born in Philadelphia,” Maggie said, “He died in Afghanistan. He’s buried in Arlington, but his spirit and heart will always be here in Philadelphia.”

If you drive by the Michael Strange memorial mural, see if you can find a parking spot and pull over. It is a beautiful tribute – truly something to see up close. To learn more about Michael and his legacy, you can visit his foundation page: www.michaelstrangefoundation.org

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