Why Philly's Flag Man is calling it quits

The Flag Man Tony Clark, at his Chester County home. Clark is retiring from the Philadelphia Water Department after news of an investigation into his patriotic service of replacing tattered American flags around the city.

THE FLAG MAN has struck his colors.

After being summoned to an investigatory hearing by the Philadelphia Water Department while he was on medical leave from his job as an inspector, Tony Clark decided he'd had it up to here. When his medical leave ended, he notified his employer he was using his accumulated vacation time until Aug. 5, at which time he will retire. That is today.

Before starting to burn off his vacation time, Clark had been recuperating from heart-valve replacement surgery.

The Flag Man was going to be investigated for his venture into patriotic public service by putting up 4-by-6-foot American flags on flagpoles at public schools, parks and recreation facilities, where they are required to be flown under U.S. law. The city wasn't doing it, so since 2007 Clark has done it, buying the flags himself and attaching them to flag poles on his free time, like lunch breaks.

That's what I wrote in April, and then some lowlife claimed Clark was doing something wrong.

Instead of giving him a medal for good citizenship, he was ordered to come to a meeting to investigate allegations that he used "city equipment for personal gain."

That still makes the 68-year-old Navy veteran chuckle.

Over the years that he was the Flag Man - part Lone Ranger, part Good Samaritan - he spent some $20,000 of his own money on the flags, which were purchased from Wyomissing's Valley Forge Flag Co. Why did he do it? He simply loves the flag and knows where it is supposed to be flown. He's irritated more people don't share his love.

We recently chatted in his Chester County home, where he is healing. His wife, Pam, busied herself in the other room, his adopted dog Summer played with a toy in the corner, which the former Flag Man would tug on from time to time.

The normally loquacious Flag Man paused when I asked him how the whole situation made him feel, to go from flag-flying to retirement.

"That's a loaded question," he said with a smile. "Let's say I had a reality check. When you have a heart-valve replacement at 68, it's a wake-up call."

I was with him in April when he replaced the twisted, mangled flag at the Lonnie Young Recreation Center in Germantown. The trouble began after my column ran.

I reported that if the flagpole isn't too tall, he uses a 40-foot ladder with the help of friends. Taller poles require a bucket truck, and he doesn't have one.

I wrote that Clark has to mooch one from a sympathetic city worker and that this is done mostly under the radar. The people in charge go blind for the hour it may take to replace a flag, I wrote.

Somehow, Clark's generous and patriotic gesture got twisted into doing something for "personal gain," which is the opposite of the facts.

When I asked the Water Department for information - such as who made the allegation and based on what evidence - the info tap was turned off.

The Flag Man just got fed up with the carnival.

He says some of his buddies in Parks and Rec will continue his flag-raising, but they will do it on the QT to stay off the S list.

One thing's for sure. If some one needs help, all they have to do is give the Flag Man a call.

After today, the Flag Man's time will be his own. He won't be playing Pokemon Go.

"I hope to continue putting up flags in the city and taking care of Mount Hope cemetery," he says. "Both are enormous projects."

Mount Hope cemetery in Aston is where his late wife Debby, also a Navy veteran, is laid to rest. By combing through VA records, the Flag Man has discovered about 1,000 veterans interred there, dating to the Civil War, some missing flag holders at the grave sites.

That will be fixed. Tony Clark has retired, but the Flag Man has not.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977N>@StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky