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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."

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