He was the boy on someone's baseball team; the drug addict nicknamed "Funky Rat" who did years in prison; and ultimately he was a giant in his own time.
That's how community members remembered slain East Palo Alto leader David Lewis Thursday evening, when hundreds gathered at "Free at Last," the center he co-founded to help the city's addicts end their personal death spiral and destructive impact on the community.
Ironically, the meeting was originally planned to discuss the impending closure of another of Lewis' achievements: the East Palo Alto Parole Reentry Program, which supplied ex-convicts with a support network of housing, drug treatment, education, mental health assistance and job training and placement to help break the cycle of returning to prison.
The program is about to run out of funding from a state Department of Corrections grant and is scheduled to close June 23 unless more funding can be found.
But Lewis' death on Wednesday -- when he was gunned down in a parking garage at San Mateo's Hillsdale Shopping Center in broad daylight -- turned the evening into a memorial service and mutual-support meeting for those attending.
Lewis was shot in the back after an argument with an unknown assailant, according to police. His death sent shock waves throughout East Palo Alto and many other parts of the country where his influence was felt, speakers said.
"David Lewis is not a bad man and he's not supposed to be dead," said friend Wilber Jackson, summing up the shock and bewilderment of many in the community.
"He's become a giant among giants. He sits at the table with Ph.D.s; he got a diploma in prison," he said.
Sue Simmons recalled that she spent 40 years addicted to heroin. She lived in bushes next to U.S. Highway 101. Lewis would bring her clean clothes in the bushes, trying to convince her that she could overcome her addiction, she said. He never gave up, she said.
"In February, when I was in the hospital with botulism, he said, 'You died and came back and God gave you another chance,'" she recalled. And she said she finally entered rehabilitation in April.
More than 100 people formed large circles that encompassed the room. They held hands, reciting a prayer in a display of collective strength.
"Someone meant this to be an evil deed and look what happened," said Vicki Smothers, co-founder of Free at Last. "The evidence of his love is your presence here today.
"We want to make sure his legacy lives on."