Before the Safeway, four lives intersected at the YMCA

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

TUCSON - The lifeguards at the Northwest YMCA called U.S. District Judge John M. Roll "Mr. Smiley" because he was so cheerful as he passed by early each morning before his daily swim.

The dance instructors and child-care attendants there marveled at the energy and grace of Christina Taylor Green, describing her as a delightful combination of tomboy and girly-girl who one moment would show off her scraped knees from climbing a tree and the next sit quietly and braid her friend's hair.

The building's administrators had a steadfast ally in Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who had served on their executive board and had pushed for state child-care funding that allowed many of the Y's members to continue to afford its programs.

And many people who worked at the YMCA knew a disturbed young man named Jared Loughner, whose erratic behavior included strange outbursts in the cardio room, where he attended a fitness class through Pima Community College.

The nation knows all too well how these four lives and dozens more intersected tragically last weekend outside a Safeway in northwest Tucson - a horrifying and seemingly random union that left Roll, Green and four others dead, Giffords gravely wounded, and Loughner in federal custody as the alleged gunman.

Yet their paths had crossed before at the Northwest YMCA, whether they realized it or not. They were from different worlds and came to the Y at different times. Perhaps they had never met. Here, in the vast and sometimes impersonal Tucson suburbs, where there is no downtown or central gathering space, the Y serves as a community hub, a place where people join clubs and classes, make friends, and feel that they belong.

"This is, for a lot of us, our second home," said Michelle Marshall, 27, a student at the University of Arizona who taught Christina Green in the YMCA's "Little Dancers" class. In years past, she looked after Christina and her older brother, Dallas, in the child-care program while their parents worked out.

"We go to school at U. of A. or Pima Community College. We come before or after school. We know a lot of the members by name. We see these people pretty much every day," Marshall said. "And when they're not here, we notice."

That's been the case this week as the people who staff the Y try to settle back into their routines.

The lifeguards paused before dawn Tuesday as they watched over the eerily still outdoor pool, where, at that hour, Roll would often have the lanes to himself. Bundled in red-hooded parkas to withstand the chilly desert morning, they watched the steam rise off the heated water and recalled the man who came in like clockwork most days, always with a smile, always with a kind word and, at holiday time, with a treat for the crew.

"We called him Mr. Smiley," said Mikaela Weigel, 20, a pool attendant and a student at Pima Community College. "Everybody agreed on it - he was always a really, really happy guy. This last Christmas and New Year's he brought us English toffee and some peppermint bark. He was just thanking us for what we do here."

Weigel didn't know that Roll was a federal judge until two weeks ago, when she was called to jury duty in his courtroom. It was then that she also learned that he was the uncle of one of her best friends.

"I saw his name on the screen," she said, recalling the news coverage of the shooting Saturday night. "I was like, no. No. No way. That can't be."

Drawings and hugs

For the young women who work in the Child Watch program, the hardest thing will be not seeing Christina skipping through the YMCA's soaring lobby or presenting her signed drawings as presents.

They could not talk about her without becoming emotional. "There wasn't one day when she wouldn't come and give me the most loving, fulfilling hug ever," said Jamie Petty, 22, a Child Watch attendant and nursing student at Pima Community College who hopes one day to work in pediatrics. "She liked to listen to music. She would always show me her new dance moves or gymnastics moves. She liked to talk. Sometimes we would just sit down and have a girl talk. We would just talk about everything, about her dreams, just stuff at home, everything."

Alexis Gibson, 19, another Child Watch employee, recalled how carefully Christina colored inside the lines in her artwork - and how one day, she gave her a drawing of a reindeer with the words "Lexie Rocks" below.

Marshall, the dance instructor, was struck by Christina's maturity and seriousness and her ability to carry on a conversation about anything - dancing, science, current events. But it was Christina's sparkle in the studio that Marshall will miss most.

"She was always the one out there dancing first and made everyone else want to dance with her," Marshall said, weeping. "She had this rhythm that mesmerized. She would do nothing, just silly moves, but she was always on beat. She was so passionate about dance and everything she did."

'She's always been there'

Michael Reuwsaat, the Northwest YMCA's executive director, has known Gabrielle Giffords for years. The former town manager of nearby Marana, Reuwsaat worked with Giffords during her days in the state legislature, when she also served on the executive board of the YMCA of Southern Arizona.

"I go back with Gabby," Reuwsaat said. "She did an awful lot. She's always been there and helpful. It was kind of quiet for my wife and I this weekend."

Reuwsaat said it was inevitable that a tragedy would touch the Northwest YMCA, which has 13,000 members and runs programs for more than 8,000 children. For all of sprawling Tucson's lack of a center of gravity, the YMCA - a spotless modern facility perched on a hill overlooking the campus of Pima Community College - draws people from all around.

It's not surprising that Loughner came, too, Reuwsaat said. The YMCA provides space for a number of programs offered by the community college, where Loughner took classes. The Y is also within the remarkably small map where Loughner's troubled life played out: less than two miles from his home, three miles from Mountain View High School, a few hundred feet from the college campus where he studied and just three miles from the Safeway where the shooting occurred.

Early Tuesday morning, Weigel, the pool attendant, stared across the glassy surface of the water. Usually at that time she would be keeping an eye on the judge as he performed his dutiful laps. "He's not going to be here," she said. "The pool's going to be empty, and it's just going to be a constant reminder."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company