Philly-area veteran who volunteers at cemetery: 'I came back. They didn't.'

Charles Worrilow was not a veteran, but a favorite of Kimberly Flint (left) anyway. At age 11 he tried to join the Union Army as a drummer, but was rejected. Flint placed a flag at his tombstone. Others pictured (l-r): Mount Hope Cemetery Superintendent Larry Bakey, Flag Man Tony Clark and Mount Hope Cemetery Assistant Superintendent Steffan Tardif.

Kimberly Flint steps out of her car at Mount Hope Cemetery and swings her gaze to the fluttering flags marking military graves. As her eyes fill with tears, she fans her hand in front of her face, overcome by the somber beauty of the silent scene.

In the cemetery’s office she hugs Tony Clark, meeting him in person for the first time. Until that moment she had known him only online.

I first met Clark, built like a bulldog with a laugh instead of a bark, when he was a Philadelphia Water Department construction inspector with an unusual hobby. In his free time, he went around the city replacing worn or missing U.S. flags at Philadelphia parks, schools, rec centers, and other locations where they are required to be flown but weren't. People who knew what he was doing called him the Flag Man. So did I.

His act of patriotic charity, amazingly, got the Navy veteran into a jam on the job, where someone accused him of using city property for personal gain. That’s a bitter joke, because over a decade Clark used about $20,000 of his own money to buy the flags he flew.  

Facing an investigative hearing after medical leave for a heart-valve replacement, Clark, now 69, a Port Richmond native who lives in Sadsbury Township, Chester County, decided the hell with it and retired last August.

From the job, but not from public service.

Nowadays Clark is in the cemetery digging up graves of veterans.

Not with a shovel, but digging through musty records at the 24-acre Mount Hope Cemetery in Aston, Delaware County, and at Veterans Affairs. Every vet’s grave, he believes, should have a flag holder and a flag.

He chose Mount Hope because that’s where his wife, Debora, is buried. Like Clark, she was a veteran of the Navy, which is where they met. When Debora passed in 2008, Clark noticed that veterans' graves at Mount Hope were not well-tended. “The vets were being disrespected,” he says. He offered to help clean things up, but was rebuffed.

That changed seven years ago when Larry Bakey, 54, became superintendent of the cemetery. “ 'Come on in,' ” Bakey remembers telling Clark. “It lets me have more time to do everything else that has to be done, and the veterans get recognized.” Assistant superintendent Steffan Tardif, 47, sees things the same way.

Using cemetery and VA records, Clark confirmed the service of many of the interred and got flags and flag holders for the graves.

He wants to find and mark all the veterans’ graves at Mount Hope.

“This is pretty much impossible,” says Clark, “when you consider that the first two plots are older than the country. Many headstones are gone.”

That would be a dead-end for most people, but not for the 62-year-old Flint, a retired executive secretary with experience in genealogy whose husband, David, is a Navy vet. When the Flag Man met the Graves Lady on the Find A Grave website he knew he had found a kindred spirit. Find A Grave is a directory of graveyards everywhere.

“Mention Harry, too,” says Clark, and I will. Harry Habbersett, who lives in Michigan, is another grave hunter who has volunteered time.

Flint visits cemeteries, photographs headstones, and adds them to the website, about 55,000 so far. “I do it mostly to preserve a gravestone forever, because they deteriorate so quickly,” she says. 

Like Clark, she is an unabashed, flag-waving, vet-loving patriot who finds deep satisfaction in preserving the memory of those who, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, gave their last full measure of devotion.

“I access a lot of search engines so I can get a name, and then I use Ancestry.com or Newspapers.com to find out about the vets,” says Flint, a resident of Boothwyn. She’s become so skilled she can find bios she's seeking in less than a half-hour. But it is an endless task.

Clark has never sought praise or recognition. His reward is the work. His passion comes from a simple place: "I came back. They didn't."

He says the U.S. has 100,000 private cemeteries, fewer than 1,000 of which properly identify veterans. His dream is for others to do in their home community what he and Flint are doing in theirs.

Can his dream come true?