Fayette County

Widow searches for stolen memorial box made to share books the family loved

Nicole Breazeale stood by the sign in her front yard that appeals for the return of a memorial of books and bumper stickers made for her late husband Phillip. A neighbor painted the sign.
Nicole Breazeale stood by the sign in her front yard that appeals for the return of a memorial of books and bumper stickers made for her late husband Phillip. A neighbor painted the sign. Photo by Mark Cornelison

Nicole Breazeale put pieces of her soul in a box adorned with mementos her late husband loved, then set it on a chair outside of her Lexington home Monday, the one-year anniversary of his death. The next day it was gone.

Breazeale’s husband, Phillip Johnson, died of brain cancer last January. As a memorial, Breazeale and her son Alex, 2, turned the box into a Little Free Library. Friends from around the country sent bumper stickers (Phil’s car was covered with them) to decorate the box, and Breazeale filled it with books that were special to her family.

She had hoped people who used the Little Free Library would bring back any books they took or replace them with ones that meant something to them. The libraries got their start in Wisconsin, where she attended graduate school, and there are several in Lexington.

Every book in Breazeale’s box had an inscription explaining why it was included. Johnson, a graduate of Lexington Catholic, used a copy of Thomas More’s Utopia to propose; other books were copies of those Johnson read to his son.

“It was not a place where junky books go to die, it’s a place for meaningful books to grow,” Breazeale said.

Flowers eventually would be planted to grow around it, she said. Maybe there would be water for dogs to drink while their owners browsed. Breazeale, a Lexington native, anticipated watching people find the inscriptions while they interacted with the books her husband loved.

She made a Facebook post, shared more than 2,700 times Wednesday, asking that whoever took the box bring it back to the house on Rosemont Garden.

“I have to believe it was an accident ... that someone didn't realize what it was,” she said in the post.

Alex has asked her where his daddy’s box is and when it will come back. Before he died at 38, Johnson would hold his son’s bottle at bedtime and read stories until the cancer progressed so far that the father couldn’t speak.

It’s especially heartbreaking to lose a part of him again, Breazeale said.

“I’m not ready to admit it’s not coming back,” she said of the box.

Friends, including Angie Elser, aren’t ready either. Elser said that when she read Breazeale’s post she was immediately angry and wanted to do something to help find the box.

“What she had created was something that would allow people to connect with each other — building community — while simultaneously sharing a tribute to Phil,” Elser said.

Elser’s daughter goes to preschool across the street from Breazeale’s home, so she had the school check its security video.

“They didn’t have anything pointed in that direction,” she said.

Those who contributed to the box are outraged.

Michael Quennoz gathered stickers for the box from Johnson’s favorite places in Texas; they were roommates during graduate school at Texas A&M.

Quennoz said their place had bookshelves on every wall. He said they’d have lively debates about their favorite authors and who had the better hometown.

“Phil was an endless champion of Lexington,” Quennoz said. There were times he’d ask Johnson to stop talking about the Bluegrass.

Like every good married couple, Johnson and Breazeale were exactly the same and a little different, Quennoz said. Johnson was more outgoing, so he made sure his wife connected with his friends, Quennoz added.

Elser, Johnson’s friend from high school, thinks he would laugh about the number of shares the post about the missing box got so quickly. But he would be touched that so many people wanted to help his wife, even if they didn’t know her.

Elser said that while Johnson was dying, he asked her to “make sure she (Breazeale) would have a strong network and community.”

Elser said she hoped the support Breazeale was getting on Facebook and in person was proof that that was happening.

“I know this is like being punched in the stomach with her,” Elser said. “She is starting to come around a bit.”

“We’ll continue to help her as best we can,” Quennoz said. If it comes to it, he’ll help her make another box.

How to help

Those with information on the box’s whereabouts can contact the Herald-Leader at mmckay@herald-leader.com.