It felt as if he had always been there, a steady sight on a busy corner in a college town.
Hovering above 6 feet tall with hazel eyes and hair streaked with gray, David Breaux was a graduate of Stanford University and had been an aspiring screenwriter. But such details belonged to a past he rarely spoke of. He had reimagined his purpose, becoming a fixture at the intersection of Third and C Streets in Davis, Calif.
It was there that he held a notebook and offered passers-by a question: Would you care to share your definition of compassion? You, charmed by the interaction, most likely jotted something down. And then maybe you stuck around to talk a little more.
Over the years, Mr. Breaux made countless connections and grew a reputation as a communal therapist of sorts. Business owners revealed their anxieties. Students spoke of finals week. Unhappy mothers divulged marital problems.
“If you’ve ever been through a divorce, you feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you and that you might not make it. I sat down there with him, and he really saved me,” said Kristin Stansby, 54, a shift manager at a local CVS Pharmacy. “You just really felt you could pour your heart out to him.”
Elsewhere, Mr. Breaux might have been dismissed as an oddity. Unhoused and without a job, he sometimes slept outdoors.
But in a liberal town where idealism tended to flourish, he was embraced. Much of it had to do with his temperament. He had a genuine, soft way about him and a soothing voice.
He became so intrinsic to the city that he was widely known as “the Compassion Guy,” someone whose presence was both treasured and ordinary.
Until the cruelest of endings and a paradox.
At 50 years old, Mr. Breaux was found stabbed to death on a park bench in late April.
They are in every community, those familiar figures who are woven into the public scenery. They are the characters of our daily routines, and we expect them to be in their usual place — signaling normalcy, reliability, in our often-frazzled lives.
Mr. Breaux’s calling came after a breakup with a girlfriend left him dejected. Searching for inspiration, he discovered activists like Karen Armstrong, the British author and scholar on religion, who spoke about how compassion was inherent to peace.
He dived into the idea of selflessness, giving away his belongings in Oakland and eschewing movies, poker and video games. A friend in Davis, about 70 miles northeast, offered him a place to stay. He arrived in the spring of 2009.
Mr. Breaux’s post was on a main thoroughfare lined with restaurants, bars and shops in a town that swells to about 100,000 when University of California, Davis, students arrive each fall. It was near the campus and across the street from Central Park, home to the city’s beloved farmers’ market.
Amid a hub of energy, he offered calm. Anyone who asked about his day got the same response: “Peaceful.”
“I was always in a rush, running a business, parking the car, carrying stuff. And he was just sitting there absolutely happy and content in life,” said Yelena Ivashchenko, 49, the owner of a nearby consignment shop. “It did affect me — the reassurance that everything is OK.”
A 2010 student documentary shows Mr. Breaux marveling over the acquaintances he amassed. “I knew one person coming here in May last year, and now, I think — I tallied it one day — I waved to 103 people,” he says.
The owner of Crepeville, a popular eatery, commissioned an artist to paint Mr. Breaux as he was seen outside the restaurant window. Some mornings, Mr. Breaux wandered in and ordered potatoes with a side of pesto and a mint tea, sitting not far from where the painting hung on the wall.
In 2013, the city approved the building of a bench on his corner. Community members came out to create the public art sculpture adorned with tiles and the words “Compassion is …”
The sight of Mr. Breaux on that bench comforted returning graduates, said Evan Davis, 32, who co-directed the 2010 documentary when he was a junior.
“To have someone there who you know is always going to be there — I guess that made you feel like you belonged to something, you were connected, that you had a home,” he said.
The tranquillity belied a chaotic past.
Mr. Breaux’s mother, an immigrant from Jamaica, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia before he was born. His father, a janitor at an industrial supermarket bakery, was often emotionally and physically abusive.
“We grew up in constant arguing. Pretty much every day there was yelling in our house or some kind of scuffle,” recalled Mr. Breaux’s sister, Maria, 54.
“But David during this entire time was just super mellow. I have never seen him be mean at any point during my life.”
The siblings and their older brother were raised in Duarte, a small city in Los Angeles County at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Maria and David Breaux were especially close, able to joke about the awful events in their lives and finding solace in two aunts who saw their intellect and tried to smooth the way.
But when she went off to Stanford, he was left to help care for their mother. He dipped into a depression in high school and, according to his sister, attempted to take his life twice.
He seemed to be in a better place in 1991 when he, too, enrolled at Stanford, where he majored in urban studies with a focus on community development.
Friends knew him as a good dancer with a quirky sense of humor. He displayed a wide range of talents: piano, guitar, basketball, singing Prince songs, quoting Martin Scorsese films.
In the 1990s, Stanford cultivated students who would become Silicon Valley legends. Others chose lucrative careers in law, medicine or finance.
Mr. Breaux did not have an eye toward upward mobility. He spent summers working as a counselor at a camp for families of Stanford alumni. Excited by creative expression, he wrote a script shortly after graduating. He also worked as a substitute teacher in Southern California.
When he began his unconventional path in Davis, many of his classmates did not know what to make of it.
He remained close to his college buddy Rudy Monterrosa, showing up in a gray groomsman’s tuxedo with a red tie for his 2016 wedding in Los Angeles.
An attorney and a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Monterrosa, 50, sometimes worried about Mr. Breaux’s well-being. But he had already reconciled the memory of the friend he once road-tripped with to Las Vegas with the changed one devoted to a greater good. “I feel blessed to have known both.”
Mr. Breaux was unemployed and without a permanent place to live, but many did not like to call him homeless. They saw him as someone simply uninterested in material possessions.
“Did he sleep in the park? Absolutely. Did he go to shelters? 100 percent. But everything David did was conscious and by choice and a lot of it had to do with that he didn’t want anything from anyone,” said Becky Marigo, who had been Mr. Breaux’s case manager at Davis Community Meals and Housing.
Mr. Breaux found his way to the shelter around 2010, hoping for a quiet place where he could focus on publishing a book from the comments he had collected.
He stayed for about a year, sharing a room with three people and contributing to the daily chores. He did not need the same guidance as other residents, so his meetings with Ms. Marigo involved life discussions, fierce games of backgammon and karaoke sing-offs.
A wide circle of leaders and professionals entrusted him with civic responsibilities. In 2011, U.C. Davis police used pepper spray on students protesting tuition hikes, an incident captured on video and replayed across the nation. Galvanized, Mr. Breaux joined Robb Davis, who would become mayor from 2016 to 2018, and Kristin Stoneking, a well-known area pastor, and advocated mediation to resolve conflict in the city.
In a community where Black residents made up less than 3 percent of the population, Mr. Breaux could offer leaders a perspective that was often in the margins.
“David was really frank about how, as a Black man, he was treated differently. He gave me the courage to speak about racial disparity,” said Mr. Davis, 63, who is white.
Friends helped Mr. Breaux plan community talks and launch a national speaking tour that took him to a dozen cities. He self-published his book using a small inheritance from his aunt. Hundreds were sold for $15 apiece.
Supporters also slipped him food and warm clothes, contributed to his GoFundMe account, threw him fund-raisers and housed him from time to time.
In recent months, some noticed that Mr. Breaux seemed distant, that he answered “good” instead of “peaceful.” He had weathered the pandemic, but it had worn on him. Davis residents had been especially cautious, and the lack of human connection in a congenial town took a toll on many.
Earlier this year, he was considering elements of a traditional route and sent a surprising text to a friend.
“Any suggestions on how to find work? Where to look apropos to being a Stanford grad,” he wrote.
He also inquired about a new housing development with micro apartments, eager to get on the wait list.
“I was happy to hear it, because he never really prioritized himself,” Ms. Marigo said. “It was a new chapter in his life.”
At first the police revealed only that the victim had no enemies. The description would later feel too accurate.
Mr. Breaux’s body was discovered on April 27 in Central Park, near the pedal-powered carousel that has delighted generations of children. He had been stabbed, the police said, “many, many times.”
Homicides are rare in Davis, but shortly after Mr. Breaux’s death was announced, another occurred. Karim Abou Najm, a 20-year-old U.C. Davis student, was found fatally stabbed on a bike path at a different park. He was six weeks away from graduating with a degree in computer science.
Panic set in. Businesses shut down early, the university canceled events, and evening classes went online. Hundreds of tips overwhelmed the authorities.
On May 1, Kimberlee Guillory, 64, was stabbed through her tent at a homeless encampment but survived. She was able to describe her assailant, a man believed to be responsible for all three attacks.
Within days, Carlos Dominguez, 21, was arrested and charged with two counts of murder. Once a promising student who spoke of becoming a doctor, he had recently been kicked out of U.C. Davis because of academics. He pleaded not guilty last month and a psychiatric review was ordered to determine whether he is fit to stand trial.
A city’s fear soon folded to grief. Vigils were held, and bouquets and candles were placed. More than $60,000 was raised to help Ms. Guillory recover. An endowment to support undergraduate research was created in Mr. Najm’s honor. Two retired professors helped start a scholarship that will bear Mr. Breaux’s name. Interest renewed in his book.
There are now two benches in town tied to the legacy of Mr. Breaux.
The familiar one on his usual corner is laden with flowers, photographs and notes.
The other has a metal frame with slats and sits on grass near the edge of a park. It is where his body lay, and where — even in his final moments with a killer — many are convinced he still offered compassion.