Tribute box gone, but Phil’s spirit lives on in public support

Nicole Breazeale stood by the sign appealing for the return of a memorial of books, bumper stickers for her late husband.
Nicole Breazeale stood by the sign appealing for the return of a memorial of books, bumper stickers for her late husband. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

A week ago was the first anniversary of my husband’s death. Phil died from brain cancer at 38. He was extraordinarily full of life — revered as a jokester, sports enthusiast, political critic, world traveler and archaeologist. But mostly Phil was loved for his endless curiosity and passion, his gentle heart, and his steadfast commitment to family, friends and community.

To memorialize my soul mate and little Alexander’s daddy, the two of us constructed a Little Free Library that we placed in front of our home on his angelversary.

The tribute box was covered with the bumper stickers that adorned Phil’s iconic blue Forester. It was filled with books that he would want to share. My hope was that this would promote neighborliness, encourage people to browse and serve as a topic of conversation for those who wandered by.

Much to my surprise and heartbreak, the box disappeared in less than 24 hours, taken by unknown individuals for reasons only they understand. However, something extraordinary followed in the wake of its disappearance. My original Facebook post asking for help in locating the box was shared more than 4,000 times. Many folks must have called the local media because news reporters showed up in droves the next day and covered the story widely. J&H offered a $500 reward for the box’s safe return, and I have since received two other offers to add to that reward.

No one is more disappointed than me that the box did not materialize this last week. I was certain that it had been taken accidentally, that someone had thought the box was cool and that its owners no longer wanted it. And I imagined that when they opened the box and saw its contents and heard all the media reports that they would return it.

The box may be gone, but I have been humbled by the show of support from this community.

Among the extraordinary things that transpired: a stranger left a gift at my front door and we later discovered that I had been a babysitter for her son 22 years ago; I met four neighbors for the first time who invited me to visit and to join a women’s group; I reconnected with high-school friends of mine and Phil’s; and many strangers from across the state offered to help replace the box, commenting on how touched they were by our love story.

Of course, the response was not all positive. Many people reacted by reaffirming their feelings of distrust and disappointment in our community: “If we don’t chain up our valuables, some scumbag will steal them.”

I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to counter that narrative, because truth be told, if that is the outcome of this loss, I will be even more heartbroken.

Incredibly, however, a different community response is gaining momentum. Two days ago I was tagged in a Facebook post by someone I did not know. Jennifer Cooper and Matt Bradford posted the following message: “Help her honor her husband. Put library boxes all over Lexington! I’m making one for Bradford BBQ!” That same day I was copied on a group email sent by Rachel Kennedy, a former colleague of Phil’s, proposing that those who loved him “place a little library box in your yard or somewhere in your community.”

The Kentucky Heritage Council is placing an archaeology-inspired box outside of their office in Frankfort. FoodChain will create one with books that promote food literacy and the sustainable local food movement. The Little Free Library nonprofit is providing a Lexington library in honor of brain-cancer warriors, which will be filled with books selected by family members who have lost their loved ones. Even the Barren County Detention Center was inspired to create one in their lobby for kids growing up without a parent. And there are other individuals and families making boxes because it seems like a nice thing to do.

While I am sure that Phil’s spirit is laughing hysterically at all the fuss over a missing box (the contents of which are replaceable, and even meant to be distributed), his legacy has been a catalyst for drawing parts of our community together. If it makes the community a little more generous and a little less isolated, then that’s a great thing.

And as people continue to step up, it draws on the best of them, the part of them that is kind and concerned for others — not isolated and fearful, not afraid of others. That is squarely in line with Phil’s values.

For me, having faced the loss of my best friend and life partner, everything seems different now. In the grand scheme of things, the loss of this box is not the end of the world. What started as a single, semi-private tribute to the man I loved has turned into something that touched a whole city.

To help: If interested in donating books or crafting a Little Library, stop by Baby Bundles of Lexington at 2535 Nicholasville Road 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For information on the Little Free Library movement: http://littlefreelibrary.org/