BRATTLEBORO -- Bert Salva's message was obvious when he painted "Mary Shiminski I Love You" on an overpass in 1974.
And his public stunt worked perfectly. He soon married the subject of his affection and photographs of the not-so-discreet declaration of love appeared in newspapers across the country. It got defaced with graffiti over the following four years, until one morning the words "Mary Shiminski I Still Love You" (with Salva's initials omitted) appeared in the same spot. And no one knew who was responsible. Until last week, that is.
Newfane resident Tim Doucette contacted the media to confess that he and old friends Ron Karpius and William Brown were the mysterious scribes who etched the second message in the shroud of night. The three agreed to never tell anyone, but Doucette is moving to central Florida at the end of the month and wants everyone to know who wrote "Mary Shiminski I Still Love You" in 1978.
"Before we really set out and started to work, the three of us made a pact that we would never say anything," he told the Reformer. "If we got it done without being caught, we weren't going to say anything."
Doucette explained a man named Bert Salva met and fell madly in love with Mary Shiminski, a Long Island native who spent time in Vermont because her parents owned a home nearby. Salva wrote "Mary Shiminski I Love You" on the Route 9 overpass drivers had to pass under to get to Chesterfield, N.H. Though the message upset Shiminski at first, the two got married soon after and moved away.
Karpius, a Brattleboro resident, said by 1978 the message had gotten tagged with ugly graffiti and it didn't sit well with him. He said the words were a ray of sunshine for anyone who drove into New Hampshire via Route 9 because they were romantic and mysterious.
"You always had a smile on your face when you were going through there - no matter how tough your day was," he told the Reformer, adding that he approached Doucette and Brown with the idea to restore the message. "I said, 'Guys, what do you think?' We all agreed and we had the materials."
The three were drinking buddies who frequented the Good Old Days bar at the nearby Howard Johnson's and set out one night to cover the graffiti and amend the sweet message. Careful not to draw attention to themselves, they painted over the original wording and the graffiti and, after waiting for the black paint to dry, wrote "Mary Shiminski I Still Love You" as a homage to a woman they knew nothing about and had never met.
Doucette recalled with a laugh how he, Karpius and Brown laid flat on the truss to avoid detection whenever a car drove by and how they retreated to the bushes to hide from the police. Doucette said he was even questioned by police when he went to get coffee while the coat of black paint was drying. He was particularly careful not to get caught by his uncle, Marcel LeClaire, who eventually became chief of police in Brattleboro.
"I called him the other day and he said, 'How ... did you do that and I didn't catch you?" he said Monday. "I used to be a hellraiser. Everything I did, I turned around and Marcel was there. He always got me, but he's thrilled over this (that the three men revealing their identities)."
The Reformer published photographs of the original message and the revised one, referring to the then-mysterious trio as an "unknown copyist." Brown, who now lives in Shepherdstown, W. Va., told the Reformer it was great to hear from Doucette and Karpius after all these years. They called him to say they were going to reveal the big secret.
"Ron and Tim came up with this idea and I said, 'I'm in,'" he recalled with clarity. "(The original message) was always sort of a precious thing about Brattleboro, the whole thing. When we got the chance to sort of recreate it, I jumped at the opportunity to do it with them.
"The whole story resonated with people," he added. "I just thought it was a wonderful idea."
Doucette recently decided to try to track down the inspiration for their adventure and found Shiminski on Facebook. He revealed his identity and the two have talked over the phone several times over the past few weeks. Shiminski now lives in northern Florida and she looks forward to meeting Doucette after he moves to the Sunshine State later this month.
Shiminski told the Reformer she and Salva are no longer married -- news sure to disappoint local romantics - but are still very close and raised three children together. Salva is a trucker. Shiminski also said she was floored to hear from Doucette out of the blue.
"I was very surprised when I heard. ... I gave no thought (to who may have done it). We didn't know anyone in the area who would have done it," she said. "(Several newspapers) called us and said, 'Where's Bert? We know he must have done this.' But he didn't."
Shiminski said she was in a complicated relationship with Salva when she drove her children to Spofford Lake and saw his carefully chosen words. Though she married Salva a few months later, she was not happy when she first saw the message.
"I was upset. It was embarrassing. I had gone under the bridge to go swimming with (my) kids and there it was, bigger than life. And I said, 'Oh my God,'" she told the Reformer, adding that she stopped at the nearby Howard Johnson's to tell two police officers she knew who wrote the message. The irony is, they thought it was great.
"He won that round," she continued.
Shiminski, who will turn 70 in November, told the Reformer someone from Chicago once wrote a screenplay about the original words, but the script was never picked up by a studio. Nevertheless, she said many great memories have flooded back thanks to Doucette's decision to reveal the secret he has held on to since the Jimmy Carter administration.
"It's amazing," she said. "This many years later to find out who actually did it, it's amazing.
Salva, now 76, told the Reformer he wrote his original message for a very specific reason.
"We had a tiff, me and Mary, and I'm a trucker and I had to leave because there was a load I had to deliver," he said on his cell phone on Interstate 10 in Florida, "so I wanted to leave her a message and I knew she had to go under the bridge to take the kids swimming."
He said he had started painting the overpass black at 9:30 p.m. and finished his project by 2 or 3 a.m. He hasn't been to Brattleboro in decades and never knew about the new message that was written. But the men responsible called him up and told him the news they soon shared with the media - and Salva was thrilled to hear it.
"I laughed my butt off when they told me," he said, adding that he would love to meet Doucette, Karpius and Brown.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.