En español | At a recent Sunday Mass, Bill Badger, 74, got a standing ovation at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Tucson. A day earlier, he had helped subdue a young gunman after 19 people, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were shot outside a Safeway supermarket not far away.
And then there were the selfless older people like George Morris, 76, who survived despite being shot twice as he tried to shield his wife, Dorothy, who died. Dorwan Stoddard, 76, was killed as he shielded his wife, Mavanell, who was wounded but survived. Kenneth Dorushka, 63, was injured as he shielded his wife, Carol.
But it was Badger who emerges as the central older hero, someone who reminds Levy of an archetype known as the "John Wayne figure."
"That image can counteract the more common descriptions of the elderly as people in cognitive or physical decline, senile or passive," Levy said.
Badger reminds another scholar, Laura Carstensen of Stanford University, of Capt. C.B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, who, at 57 and a year from retirement, safely landed a US Airways jetliner with 155 aboard in the Hudson River, averting a catastrophe. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, said that in the Tucson shooting, "what you saw was people who knew what to do. They had been in crises before and could draw on them and get organized. That's something that age gives you."
Almost instantly after grabbing Loughner, Badger got help from two strangers, Patricia Maisch and Roger Salzgeber, both 61. Together, they held the gunman for police. One website, Politics Daily, observed that Maisch "looks more storybook grandmother than crime fighter." In fact, Maisch climbs ladders onto roofs to fix air conditioners as part of her family business. "I don't feel elderly," she said. That morning, Maisch saw the gunman take out more ammunition from his pocket. "I couldn't reach the gun, but I was able to grab the clip before he could," Maisch recalled. Then she knelt on Loughner's ankles to hold him down.
Their actions, Carstensen says, may point to the future. With older people in better health, they may prove quite adept in a crisis. "People get better at doing certain things, better in regulating emotions, in social relationships and at managing," Carstensen said. "For society, that's a big resource."
Ford Burkhart, a retired New York Times editor, lives in Tucson.