The Tale of the Valentine's Day Bandit

A tradition powered by the late Kevin Fahrman carries on in Portland, Maine
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 14, 2024 11:19 AM CST
The Tale of the Valentine's Day Bandit
A person walks past a large banner with a heart on the Portland Public Library, Feb. 14, 2020.   (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via AP)

Since 1976, residents of Portland, Maine, have awoken on Valentine's Day to find bright red hearts plastered everywhere—on church steeples, construction cranes, and a military fort accessible only by boat. In many ways, it's like a late Christmas or early Easter. "Children and adults alike go to bed knowing that, while they are sleeping, the Valentine's Bandit will strike," says NPR host Juana Summers. For decades, the Bandit acted in secret, transforming Portland into a lover's paradise under the cover of darkness. But last spring, the secret came out. Kevin Fahrman, who took over from the previous ringleader in 1979, had organized volunteers to put up hearts around the city—until he died suddenly in April at age 67.

Only then did Fahrman's family reveal he'd been the "driving force" behind the tradition. Friends who'd known Fahrman for decades said they had no idea. "It was so fitting, though," Peter Bissell, a friend of 15 years, tells NPR. "He was a very giving person." As Patti Urban said of her husband, "He had the biggest heart." And courage, too. "I don't know how many times he slipped and fell on the ice, dropped his iPhone off of the First Parish church steeple," Urban tells NPR. "I used to get so worried about him. I never would sleep that night." Though Fahrman was usually too tired to celebrate the holiday with his wife, she understood "he loved his community," she told the Press Herald last April. "And it was just, you know, Portland's gift."

The tradition "provides a bright red color to cut through the gloom" of February, Fahrman's daughter, Sierra Fahrman, tells the Press Herald. Like any good tradition, it carries on. Sierra says she's confident Portland residents will feel the love as they venture out Wednesday. She says there's a new Bandit, though she's respecting the tradition of keeping the details quiet. You don't have to be in Portland to get involved. A printable heart poster is available on the website of the Fahrman Foundation, launched by Fahrman's family to benefit some of his favorite charitable causes, including SailMaine, Friends of Fort Gorges, and the Maine Academy of Modern Music. (More Valentine's Day stories.)

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