FREMONT -- Alison Bowen fought off emotion Thursday as she walked toward a square brick building in the Mowry East Shopping Center, where John Donovan ran his auto body shop for 25 years.
About 30 flower bouquets sat next to the front door, underneath countless handwritten notes from friends and customers mourning Donovan, who died Oct. 3 of a cardiac arrest. He was 60.
"You were a great man. Now you are a true angel," read one of several messages scrawled in the dust caked on the building's windows.
"I first heard about his death yesterday," Bowen said. "I cried all last night."
She is just one of many Tri-City-area residents who admired Donovan, owner of Mowry Automotive Center, for his integrity and generosity.
"I don't know what I'm going to do now," said Bowen, a customer for 20 years.
She is not alone. If the community's outpouring of appreciation was extraordinary, it's because Donovan's people-over-profits philosophy was equally so, several longtime customers said.
Bowen, a teacher's aide at Azeveda Elementary, said each time she drove students on a field trip, Donovan first topped off all the car's fluids and gave it a checkup -- at no charge -- because he didn't want children to be endangered by an aging vehicle.
Donovan loved his job and it showed, which made his business a fun place to be, said longtime customer Janet Hakola. "His honesty was even rarer, especially in the business world," she said.
Bill Crowe, a Fremont resident for 35 years, said Donovan helped him squeeze as many miles as possible out of his 1989 Volkswagen Jetta. More importantly, he remembers the mechanic letting a homeless man park his vehicle at the shop and charge his electronic devices, or the several occasions when he did free automotive work at the Fremont Senior Center.
Donovan was born in San Francisco in 1951 and grew up in Sonoma. He is survived by his mother, Rose Donovan, of Sonoma; sister Leslie Donovan, of Sonoma; and his longtime companion, Nancy Tung, of Fremont.
Friends and customers plan to honor his many favors with a public memorial at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Alameda County Veterans Memorial Park, at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Paseo Padre Parkway, in Fremont.
"You're never going to find someone like him anymore," Crowe said. "He'll be missed by everyone. It will leave a big hole in a lot of people."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.