Lawnmower Man at Lincoln Memorial cuts grass, gains a following

Cox mowing the lawn of the Lincoln Memorial. (Source: Richard Martone)

By Sam Tyson

WASHINGTON (WCIV) - A one-man crew has stepped up as non-essential federal groundskeepers sit at home, waiting on a government shutdown to end so they can return to work tending the manicured hedges and lawns of the memorials around the District.

The man showed up outside the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday morning with a push mower, a hand-truck with supplies and a South Carolina flag and got to work on one of the many federally maintained lawns that have gone unkempt in the now-9-day shutdown.

The man, first identified by CBS Radio in Washington as South Carolina resident Chris Cox, said he was cleaning the place up ahead of the Million Vet March scheduled for the weekend.

"These are our memorials. Do they think that we're just going to let them go to hell? No," Cox told a radio reporter.

Cox says he's been out there since the first day of shutdown, rode his bike all over the memorials during the first two nights to make sure no one defaced the memorials.

"After two days of running security, I realized I would run a more vital role as a janitor or maintenance guy," Cox said.

He said trash cans were overflowing and trash was blowing across the Vietnam Memorial, so he bought trash bags and a rake and got to work.

"Before I knew it, I had emptied a couple hundred trash cans," he said.

The mayor told him the city workers would start working, so he bought a blower to clear trails around the memorials. He spent 10-12 hours a day clearing paths.

Then on Wednesday he showed up outside the Lincoln Memorial with a lawnmower.

"Park Police decided they didn't like it after high-fiving me in the beginning and they were kind of rude to me," he said. "But it was no big deal. I told them when I got there that the moment I wasn't an asset I would be more than happy to leave."

Cox has met some great people, he says.

Wheelchair-bound veterans have insisted to their wives that they get help standing to shake Cox's hand. He also met a veteran with two prosthetic legs.

"He had scars all over him. He was such an inspiration and I could just see the determination in his eyes and it made my lip quiver just thinking what he had to go through to learn how to walk on those things, much less run," Cox said.

Cox said this was never about making headlines, but about preventing them - he did not want reporters showing disgusted veterans visiting memorials that were overrun with trash and debris.

"As a civilian, you don't have a lot of opportunity to serve your country. When I saw this, I saw it as an opportunity that I may not ever have again," he said. "So I grabbed it by the horns and tried to do the best job I could."

Cox said he hoped to be joined by other people who wanted to see the area cleaned up, but said if he had to go on alone he would do his best to have the area between the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial cleaned up before the march.

Cox has even posted a short video to the Post and Courier's Facebook page, showing his working in the pre-dawn hours.

"All these cans are full and they could care less," he said in the video. "I don't know why I care, but I do. I'm not going to allow them to have a picture in the paper of all the trash piled over."

According to the radio station, Cox is being allowed to work by Park Police even though the work is not being condoned.

Cox has gathered a groundswell of support on social media. He already has a page supporting his run for Congress.

He's even picking up support from members of Congress. Rep. Mark Sanford said he met with Cox last week when the man wanted to express how unhappy he was with the shutdown.

"Today I went for my run down to the Lincoln Memorial, and there in front of the memorial I saw a South Carolina flag hanging from the back of a lawn mower. Curious I went up to the flag, and who should be there, but Chris. It turns out he had taken it upon himself since our visit last week to keep up the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam and World War II memorials and surrounding grounds! He bought a lawn mower, a blower and told me he had spent the days and evenings since our visit, picking up trash, cutting grass and blowing leaves to keep walkways clean. An hour before we met, a park service officer had come up and told him he was no longer allowed to do sothough the park service would not maintain these monuments now," Sanford said.

"I'm impressed, Chris embodies what it means to be not just a South Carolinian, but an American," added Sanford. "He saw a job that wasn't getting done and decided to take care of it. We are not a nanny state, and when government in this case chooses not to do something it's in keeping with the American tradition to ask, "What can I do to fix the problem?" Chris's example is one we could all learn from in Washington, and accordingly, I applaud him."

Cox is no stranger to politics.

In a 2002 interview with ABC News 4, he said he worked on "high-level campaigns" in Washington.

"I worked in the office of the Vice President under Dan Quayle," he said in the interview.

But around 2000, Cox turned away from the political world to focus on wood carving, a skill that even gained the attention of George Foreman. As Cox tells it, he met Foreman in the Tampa airport and the boxer tried to trade him a George Foreman Grill for one of his tikis.

Cox said he would rather have the cash.

While his focus in recent years has been his wood work -- and most recently high-profile landscaping -- he's still attracted to politics.

"I love carving wood and I also have a passion for politics," he said. "We'll just have to see which direction it goes."

Cox's movement is called the Monument Militia and he has promised to keep working until the shutdown is over and the parks landscaping crews are back at work.