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For decades, the 'Valentine's Bandit' has plastered Portland, Maine, with hearts

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Something special happens the night before Valentine's Day in Portland, Maine. Children and adults alike go to bed knowing that, while they are sleeping, the Valentine's Bandit will strike, covering doorways, windows and telephone poles across the city in bright red, paper hearts. Anisa Vietze has the story.

ANISA VIETZE, BYLINE: If you live in Portland, you know about the Valentine's Bandit.

STELLA DEL TERGO: That's sort of, like, Portland's version of, like, the Easter Bunny, but just for Valentine's Day.

VIETZE: Stella Del Tergo grew up in Portland. She says the tradition feels fantastical.

DEL TERGO: That whole city is absolutely plastered with hearts, and you get to walk around on Valentine's Day and feel like you're in a different little world.

VIETZE: Add that the Valentine's Bandit managed to do this anonymously for over 45 years, and you have yourself a local legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Valentine Bandit...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Valentine Bandit...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Placing red hearts big and small...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The closest thing we may have to a masked superhero.

VIETZE: But this year, Valentine's is bittersweet for Portland. Last April, the man behind the Valentine's Bandit tradition passed away suddenly. His friends and family decided to reveal his identity. Kevin Fahrman didn't work alone, but he secretly led a group of people in putting up the hearts for decades. The team also put up huge banners hanging off of buildings several stories in the air, dangling from construction cranes and atop an old military fort in the middle of Casco Bay, accessible only by boat.

PATTI URBAN: I don't know how many times he slipped and fell on the ice, dropped his iPhone off of the First Parish church steeple.

VIETZE: Kevin's wife, Patti Urban, says the stunt was difficult to pull off each year.

URBAN: I used to get so worried about him. I never would sleep that night.

VIETZE: Peter Bissell was a good friend of Kevin's for 15 years, but he had no idea that Kevin was the bandit.

PETER BISSELL: I found out after he died. And it was so fitting, though. He was a very giving person. But I don't think anybody knew besides his family and the people that he enlisted to help him.

VIETZE: Kevin's wife, Patti, says she thinks she understands why he did it.

URBAN: He loved Portland. He loved his community. And it was just, you know, Portland's gift. It was a gift.

VIETZE: It's clear the city loves the bandit back. Businesses around here often saved the hearts, keeping a handful tucked inside shop windows year-round.

SIERRA FAHRMAN: I think I see something over here.

VIETZE: Oh, there's one.

I walked around Portland's Old Port with Sierra Fahrman. That's Kevin's daughter. We found a few of her father's hearts from last year.

There's another.

FAHRMAN: Yeah.

VIETZE: Oh, my gosh.

FAHRMAN: They're literally everywhere. If you start, like, paying attention, they're everywhere.

VIETZE: As for what will happen tomorrow, on Valentine's Day, well, it seems that everyone has faith in the magical qualities of the Valentine's Bandit.

BISSELL: I'm pretty sure that we're going to see some hearts. It's too ubiquitous with Portland to just fall by the wayside.

VIETZE: Sierra says she knows the hearts will happen tonight, but she's being coy about who exactly will lead the charge. Sierra plans to keep her father's legacy alive beyond the hearts. She's starting a foundation with her mom in his honor to raise money for local causes that Kevin cared about.

For NPR News, I'm Anisa Vietze in Portland, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "BESIDE APRIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anisa Vietze