Ben Nunery knew something big was happening when a friend sent a text saying he'd seen photos of the Lexington native on the local news — in Australia.
"All the global coverage has been really crazy," said Nunery, who is taking a few days of welcome rest with his family to celebrate Christmas after photos honoring his late wife became an Internet, and international, sensation.
The photographs show Nunery and his 3-year-old daughter, Olivia, posing for pictures that evoked those taken with his wife, Ali, 4 1/2 years earlier for their wedding. Ali died of cancer in 2011 at age 31.
The wedding photos were shot in an empty house in Cincinnati that the newlyweds were moving into. The daddy-daughter pictures were photographed in that same house, again empty, that Ben and Olivia were leaving.
Since the story and pictures were first published Dec. 16 on the website for NBC's Today show, Today.com, they have been viewed by millions, passed around the Web via tens of thousands of Facebook "likes" and posted on too many websites to tally.
"I think that at its core, it is really a story about love," said Nunery, a graphic designer. "That is what makes people pause. People are finding inspiration and joy and hope with these images."
Ali's sister, professional photographer Melanie Pace of Cincinnati, took both sets of images. It was Nunery's idea to shoot the pictures at the Cincinnati house he shared with Ali as he and Olivia prepare to move into a new home.
The new pictures — depicting a father's love for his daughter against those showing a man's love for his wife — mimic the wedding shots. Olivia dresses in a pink, flowered dress and dances with her dad in the room where Ali wore a white wedding gown and danced with her husband. Nunery and his daughter play on the staircase where he stood waiting for his bride to descend. Olivia pretends to curl her hair where Ali had her hair and makeup done on her wedding day.
It was a last-minute decision, Pace said, to post the old photos and the new side by side on her website.
Pace said she thinks the photos reflect her family's resilience in moving forward, and "that there is hope in tragedy." No matter the loss — two years later, she said, she still feels the loss of Ali every day — the photos show in a small way "that everything will be OK eventually."
Her family has a deep faith, she said, and she sees a greater purpose in the global, universally positive reaction.
"This has really made me realize that heaven and Earth aren't really that far apart," she said.
Ali, she said, "is clearly orchestrating all of this."
That is the best explanation she can come up with for such a simple expression of love gaining so much attention.
But the love story started with a "no."
Nunery lived in Lexington until he was 13, when he moved to Campbellsville. He attended Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and eventually landed in Cincinnati, where he started a company with some buddies. He met Ali, a librarian, through mutual friends when she threw a party to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. (Pace said the charity party was typical of something Ali would do.)
Ali was smart and pretty, with a memorable laugh and a way of making people feel comfortable. Nunery was smitten from the start.
"There was something about her ... I could just not walk away from," he said.
But "when I asked her out, she said no."
Normally, that would have been that, he said. One refusal generally got his attention.
But he asked again.
"It took some persistence," he said.
Pace said her sister's initial resistance was quickly overcome. Ali had talked about boyfriends before, but she seemed to always be talking about Nunery.
The two hadn't been dating long when the sisters started shopping on the sly for bridesmaid dresses. Ali also started an overt campaign to make things official.
"She was literally on his case to get engaged all the time," Pace said, laughing.
In the end, it didn't take much convincing.
"They were crazy about each other," said Sarah Nunery, Ben's sister, who lives in Lexington.
Ben and Ali married and bought a house. After Olivia was born, Ali quit her job to stay home. Three months later came the cancer diagnosis. And far too soon after that came Ali's death.
Nunery first struggled to live in the house that they had shared and then, later, to let it go.
"We said goodbye to Ali two years ago, but her presence has remained undeniable in that house," he wrote on his blog, RockPink4Ali.com, the day the new pictures were published online. "Every square inch of it was carefully and thoughtfully decorated by her, and it was as if she had never left."
He, like Pace, sees Ali's presence in the energy that has surged through the world because of the photos.
"I still miss my wife, but I can just picture her right now just laughing and smiling and getting a big kick out of the whole thing," he said. "She had a way of reaching people when she was alive, and she is still doing it now."
Since her death, there have been signs that her presence lingers. They are the kind of signs Nunery says he never really put too much faith in before Ali died.
For instance, white feathers sometimes seem to appear seemingly out of nowhere — in places where there have been no white birds or feather pillows or anything similar.
Pace has noticed it, too.
On the day she took the photographs, she directed Olivia to a spot where a rocking chair once sat, a place where Ali soothed Olivia and cooed her name and told her how much she loved her.
There on the floor, the little girl — who people say is so much like her mother — found in the newly cleaned house a single tiny, white feather.
Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: Bluegrassmoms.com.