SAN JOSE -- Some called her "Gail." Another woman knew her as "Sandy."

But her real name was Joan Anne Hughes, and she will not be forgotten.

On Saturday, 20 mourners gathered at Westminster Presbyterian Church to remember the life of the 70-year-old homeless woman who was stabbed to death in August while sitting on the sidewalk in front of a San Jose Walgreens.

They included the social worker and kind people who tried to help her, the corporate recruiter who befriended her, the sheriff's sergeant at the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's Office who worked so diligently to find her true identity.

A fixture in the Midtown area for several years, Hughes was the weathered and sunburned woman with the walker and the piercing blue eyes. In her last months, she was often seen in front of the Walgreens on San Carlos Street at Meridian Avenue. When she died in August, hundreds attended a memorial in the Walgreens parking lot.

Police quickly arrested Marquis Reynolds, a 37-year-old San Jose resident, in connection with her death. But for weeks, Hughes was a "Jane Doe." State officials ultimately identified her through fingerprint records stemming from an old petty theft charge in San Diego.

J.B. Smith first met Hughes on a hot afternoon in June 2008. Shy and standoffish, Hughes refused any offers of money and barely made eye contact. But slowly, over time, the two became friends, and Smith discovered that Hughes was a chatterbox.


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"Over four and a half years of friendship, I learned that she was from Brooklyn, that she loved to read, that she ran track in high school," said Smith, his voice choked with tears. "I bought her a walker, and later a second one. I told her she couldn't throw them away."

Hughes was one of five children and grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, N.Y. She married and had two children; the family lived in Naperville, Ill., and in 1978 moved to Saratoga. She was a nurse, a Cub Scout den mother, a woman who loved to paints flowers and landscapes in oil and had an insatiable sweet tooth.

But after her divorce in the early 1980s, Hughes' life unraveled. She cut off contact with her family and began living on the streets, refusing offers of help. The people who knew her say she clearly had mental health issues, but didn't drink or do drugs.

"She suffered a trauma of some kind," said Kathleen Eagan, a clinical social worker who hated the idea of Hughes living alone on the streets, in the mud and the rain. "Every single time I talked to her, I talked about options. She had a tremendous effect on me -- and on a lot of people."

Some people spat on her, or kicked her. She had been beaten up several times.

Homeless people are often the targets of extremely violent attacks, often by young male assailants. Advocates are urging that anti-homeless violence be classified as a hate crime. According to the National Center for the Homeless, many homeless people are women, disabled, veterans, and gay youths forced from their homes.

After Hughes died, the people who had known her got to know one another.

"I had tried to help her," said Stacey Bardo, who started a collection to pay for a funeral. "After she died, I met J.B. at the vigil."

J.B. Smith, who works a corporate recruiter for Samsung, says his friendship with Hughes changed his life.

She refused to accept $5, $10 or $20 bills, so Smith would regularly go to the bank and ask for singles, just for her. He kept new, dry white socks for Hughes in his car and would worry when he couldn't find her. On several occasions, he offered to buy her a plane ticket home to New York to visit her two sisters. She always said no.

Besides the two sisters, Hughes is survived by her son, Lawrence Hughes; daughter, Karen Anderson; and two granddaughters that she likely never met. Family members did not attend Saturday's event, but Bardo read statements on their behalf.

Hughes' family will hold services for her in New York on Dec. 14, and Bardo plans to attend. The $2,700 that was collected on her behalf was donated Saturday to the Silicon Valley-based InnVision homeless shelter network.

"All these years, I had been under the impression that I had adopted Gail," Smith said. "When she passed, I realized that it was she who had adopted me. The next time you see someone homeless in your community, adopt them. You will gain a friend."

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.