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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.

After Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, 58, skillfully splashed US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River on January 15—saving all 155 passengers and crew in the process—he had a simple, yet compelling, explanation. "One way of looking at this," he told CBS news anchor Katie Couric, "might be that, for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."

Well, we decided to visit that bank of experience and find some other customers making deposits and withdrawals. Turns out that business is booming. Wherever we looked we found people 50-plus drawing upon their accumulated wisdom—from years of learning, living, and giving—to dramatically impact the lives of others. Here, some of these people share their extraordinary stories.

The Grandfather Figure

Andrew Evans

"I tell the kids, 'Just be a good team player in life, and you will always be a winner.' "

Don't even ask how many "grandchildren" Evans has. As head of the Urban League Grandfathers Group in Alexandria, Virginia, the 62-year-old former schoolteacher, along with his team of male colleagues aged 50-plus, "adopts" African American boys with no father figures. He takes them on outings; counsels them about homework, manners, and girls; and, most important, simply listens.

"I don't claim to have all the answers," says Evans. "I've made lots of my own mistakes. But you have to move on and try to do better next time."

These days Evans—who has six grandchildren of his own—is pouring his lifetime of experience into 12-year-old Brandon Grayson. "If something's bothering him, I just tell him to vent," says Evans. "If his mother says he's not cleaning up his room, I'll say, 'C'mon, Brandon!' I can tell when I've made a breakthrough when kids start asking me questions. If they're open with me, they'll be open with their parents and teachers."

The Gentle Teacher

John Ammon

"We go through situations that test the mettle of our souls, but once we get through them, we become stronger."

Kids want to learn. But a lifetime of teaching and mentoring Native American youngsters has taught Ammon that kids don't always want to learn the way you'd expect. And so Ammon, 66, welcomes students every afternoon to his Native Doors Networking Senter in San Jose, California. With his friendly, open face, long ponytail, and colorful attire, Ammon personifies the center's essence: a no-pressure, welcoming environment where kids can find the amount of help and guidance they desire. "We don't twist their arms," says Ammon, a teacher who grew up in the Hoopa Indian Reservation in northern California. "The kids know we want them to do well."

Sometimes a youngster's needs have nothing to do with books. Ammon turned around the life of a 17-year-old girl who had dropped out of school, troubled after her 2-year-old child was killed in a car accident. "I got her to start writing poetry. That enabled her to get out feelings she had never expressed," he says. "She was able to graduate that year."

The Angel in White

Natalie Casey

Last year Casey, 82, a nurse since 1945 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center–Passavant, was caring for a World War II veteran who was not expected to make it after major abdominal surgery. She had his wife bring in an old photo album, and then Casey sat down with him, flipping through the pages. "I told him my husband had been in the service," she says. "We talked about it for days. And pretty soon he was on the mend."

After decades of tending to the bodies and souls of patients, Casey has found that the best medicine doesn't come out of a pill bottle. "I found out that if I took a genuine interest in my patients, it took their minds off what they were in the hospital for," she says. "Nursing isn't just delivering medicine and changing bandages. If you listen to somebody, it's surprising how much their outlook can change."

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