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Wisdom of the Elders

Meet several Americans age 50+ who are using their well-honed instincts to guide, change, and even save lives.

The Street Hero

Larry Schneckenburger

He's only 51, but to the guys at Ladder Company 120 in Brooklyn, Schneckenburger is "The Old Man." That's because he's one of just 200 firefighters over age 50 among all 11,400 people in the New York City Fire Department. He started as a volunteer with the department 32 years ago and relied on every moment of that long experience in March 2006. That's the day he looked out the firehouse door and saw two punks standing on Watkins Street, right in front of Public School 298, firing automatic weapons at each other. Between the gunmen, a young boy and girl—terrified and screaming—huddled with their book bags. "I've got to get to those kids!" Schneckenburger yelled to his buddies. He ran into the hail of bullets, grabbed a fistful of each child's shirt, and yanked them behind a parked car. During a brief lull as the shooters reloaded, he hustled the children up the school steps to safety.

"Everything that helped me stay calm and think rationally that day came from years working as a fireman," says Schneckenburger, who was awarded a medal from the city for his heroism. "Would I have reacted the same way if I'd been a rookie? I don't know. I think experience had something to do with it."

The Farmer's Friend

Diane Green

"You have to learn to be patient if you're going to plant seeds and wait for them to grow."

There's no telling how many small private farms are turning out plump vegetables and fragrant herbs thanks to the aptly named Diane Green—but in the past decade she's helped scores of young people make a go of small farming. "I've had 18 apprentices, 60 students in my university farming course, and hundreds of others who have come to my workshops," says Green, 56. In 2001 she cofounded Cultivating Success, a farmer mentoring program for students at the University of Idaho and Washington State University. Every summer, apprentices live on Green's organic farm in Sandpoint, Idaho. Working one-on-one with Green, they plant, seed, transplant, rotate crops, and pluck insects from veggies and herbs by hand, rather than use pesticides. "I've learned a lot and wanted to share that knowledge with somebody who could pass along my passion," says Green. "Too many kids go to the store and don't have a clue about where food comes from. We need more farmers, and I hope my students will someday turn around and teach somebody, too."

The Cool Operator

John Freutel

A young hotshot might have tried to micromanage everything. But when Minneapolis assistant fire chief John Freutel sped to the collapsed highway bridge over the Mississippi River on August 1, 2007, he patiently ran down a mental checklist of people to call, then stood back and let them do their jobs. He alerted paramedics and rescue teams. He got hold of hazmat experts to deal with any dangerous chemicals that might have spilled into the river. He notified divers and even asked the Army Corps of Engineers to close a dam upriver, thus lowering the water level.

Thirteen people died, but without Freutel's calm, the number could have been much higher. "There isn't a manual on how to deal with a bridge collapse," says Freutel, 56. "I was juggling 10 million things, but 30 years of experience helped me stay calm. When you're in command, I've learned, the most important lesson is: take a deep breath."

Reporting by Cathy Free

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