SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Four years after the death of her husband Donald, the creator of the Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus (plastic pink flamingo), Nancy Featherstone is set to return to Southwest Harbor next week for the annual Flamingo Festival.
Theirs was a love story that began at a trade show in the Midwest and took them all over the country, celebrating with people who loved the pink plastic lawn ornament.
Although Donald Featherstone created the iconic creature in 1957, it didn’t become popular until 1987.
“The flamingo didn’t really take on its persona until its 30th birthday,” said Nancy Featherstone in a call from Fitchburg, Mass. “When it turned 30 the flamingo became mainstream. People who were having private parties were using flamingos as their theme … We started getting invited to all kinds of flamingo events.”
They attended Universal Studios when 500 pink plastic flamingos were parked across the campus in celebration. There was the party for a person who was getting an organ donated that had everything flamingo, even the toilet paper.
One of their favorite invites was the world premiere of the movie “Gnomeo and Juliet” in which the plastic flamingo was named Featherstone in honor of Donald.
And then, there is the Flamingo Festival in Southwest Harbor that typically takes place in the middle of July, close to the day they married.
This year’s flamingo festival is scheduled for July 12-15.
“Coming up to Southwest Harbor was kind of our anniversary trip every year,” Nancy Featherstone said about the trek north they made more than a dozen times. “We always had pleasant memories of Southwest Harbor and the people that were there.”
One year, Donald Featherstone was the Grand Marshal of the parade.
“We were always in the parade,” she said. “They wanted Donald and they got me too.”
Married for 39 years, the Featherstones were rare birds who mirrored each other every day for 37 of those years.
While Donald worked for Union Plastics for 43 years creating lawn ornaments and, eventually, running the company, Nancy was at home sewing their clothes. She created hundreds of custom-made outfits that matched and each day they donned duplicate dress.
“We had clothes for every occasion,” she said. “Initially, Donald would go to work and I would sew eight hours a day … Everything matched because I made everything. Now it’s a legacy.”
Nancy claims Donald was brought up to always wear a suit and tie in public.
“Nobody could get Donald out of his suit and tie,” she said. “He wore a suit and tie to cut the grass.”
Donald wore the suit and tie even in the heavy, humid heat of the Midwestern summer when he traveled from New England to court Nancy. No matter how much she insisted he take off his suit coat and tie, he refused. Then, her mother came up with a great idea.
Nancy’s mother suggested she make Donald an open-collar, short sleeved shirt, sure that he wouldn’t be able to refuse it.
“Mom was right,” said Nancy. She went on to explain that when she was in high school, people who were dating wore matching clothes. “That’s how you knew they were dating.”
Donald loved the idea.
“He said, wouldn’t it be nice if we not only had matching tops, but matching bottoms too,” she said. “All the clothes hung in the closet two by two. In fact, they still do … Donald’s passing was, and is, very hard for me.”
Earlier this year when a resident of Southwest Harbor reached out to Nancy, requesting her attendance at this year’s Flamingo Festival, she was hesitant.
“I just really didn’t want to come alone,” she said. She is planning to travel with a friend, but it won’t be the same. “He was a great guy. Donald was as close to perfect as you could get.”
Memorializing her late husband has been difficult, Nancy Featherstone said. She didn’t sew for three years after his death, she said. And she has yet to indulge in their yearly ritual of planting 57 flamingos in their lawn.
“I just haven’t had the heart to put out the flock of 57,” she said, adding that number was from the year they were made. “The flamingo was always considered somewhat tacky.
“Donald, he didn’t like that,” said Nancy. “He said, the flamingo wasn’t tacky, it’s what you do with it that makes them tacky.”
In 2015 when Donald died, Nancy used the upright flamingos — they were sold in pairs with one head up and the other head down as if grazing – to create a heart within a bouquet at his memorial. And, as if to be sure his unexpected legacy lives on, Donald Featherstone’s headstone is pink.
“He always said, if he had know what it was that made the flamingo what it was, he would have done it again.” Nancy said. “It was a great seller. It was always a really great seller.”