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The Tucson Heroes

Their experience and courage may reshape stereotypes

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.

The next week, a boy in Branch Dale, Pa., where Badger has a second home, requested a letter as proof to schoolmates that this celebrity was his friend. A stranger sent a CD by the Wilburn Brothers, "How Great Thou Art," inscribed "For you, Bill Badger." Those are among the roughly 300 e-mails and letters he's received since the shooting from people who think Badger is a hero.

But Badger downplays his role. "I'm not a hero, I just did what I had to," he said.

During the horrific Jan. 8 attack, the bravery of seven people ­ — all over age 60, three over 70 — stood out. Some experts say what they did that day might help reshape stereotypes of the aging as timid and passive.

Badger, a retired Army colonel, and two 60-plus bystanders, disarmed and held a 22-year-old man carrying a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol. The gunman had opened fire as Giffords held a sidewalk forum. Six people died, three in their 70s.

What Badger did was striking by any measure. He headed directly for the young man with the pistol, Jared Loughner, and wrestled him down, despite having received a three-inch-long head wound from a bullet. "I grabbed his left wrist with my left hand," Badger said. "I pushed his neck forward, and he hit the pavement. His gun flew."

Becca Levy, who studies ways to overcome negative age stereotypes and ageism at Yale's School of Public Health, said the media attention may help shift the public's focus away from the worst myths about older people. "Most of our stereotypes are negative," she said. "And they can have pernicious implications for older adults. This event can bolster some of the positives."

As news, the event dominated the U.S. media for weeks. It was the third-biggest story for a single week since the Pew Research Center began tracking coverage in 2007. The reports pushed aside news of a huge East Coast snowstorm and major flooding in Australia.

One compelling element was the number of public figures as victims, including Giffords, 40. She was critically wounded, shot at close range through the left brain, and is in rehabilitation in Texas. Near her was the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Arizona, John M. Roll, 63. He died when he tried to shield a Giffords aide. Another aide, Gabe Zimmerman, 30, was also killed.

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.