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Tucson's retiree community is well acquainted with death - but not like this

By David Nakamura and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 10:17 PM

TUCSON - Like so many of their peers, George and Dorothy Morris were drawn to this southwestern city after retiring from a jet-setting life - he was a pilot, she helped oversee their real estate investments - for the promise of sun and fun.

Fourteen years ago, the couple left their longtime Reno, Nev., home for the Sun City Vistoso retirement village of 4,500 residents in northwest Tucson. Not that they would sit still and ponder their mortality, said Bill Royle, 79, a friend who also lives at Sun City. Well into their 70s, the Morrises made frequent road trips in an RV, he said.

They were typical of the senior citizens who flock to Arizona to flee bad weather and stressful lives for a more leisurely lifestyle. Last year, AARP Magazine ranked Tucson No. 1 on its list of top retirement cities. Twenty percent of the population of Pima County, which includes Tucson, is 60 or older, according to a report from the county's Council on Aging.

But 76-year-old Dorothy Morris's life in the oasis ended tragically Saturday when she was gunned down outside a Tucson grocery store, in the mass shooting that killed six and wounded 13, including a congresswoman. Two other seniors, Dorwan Stoddard, 76, and Phyllis Schneck, 79, also died.

Stoddard died while trying to protect his wife, Mavy, who was shot three times but is expected to recover. George Morris was shot twice while trying to shield Dorothy, Royle said, and he remains in the hospital.

"The big shock was that we're a retirement community where people are aging and we deal with death yearround. But we do it on our own time," Lynne Newbauer, 68, who moved to Sun City from snowy Minnesota, said after a round of tennis. Of the Morrises, she added: "It's like someone cheated them."

On Tuesday, Sun City was bustling with seniors enjoying some of the 130 club activities, which range from tennis to golf to dance to woodworking. The community's 2,488 homes are arranged on precisely manicured cul-de-sacs in the valley of a mountain range. The Morris home appeared empty; a cactus and a small sign advertising a "Protection One" security system were planted in the front yard.

The Morrises, though Republican, had attended Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's "Congress on Your Corner" event Saturday because they wanted to ask her about something that was on their minds, friends said. When a gunman, identified by police as Jared Lee Loughner, opened fire on the gathering, Giffords was severely wounded.

Royle said he spoke to George Morris in the hospital. "He's hurting - emotionally and physically," Royle said. "He has some pretty good wounds. He's out of intensive care, but he will need some therapy. The bullet wound went through him. He has a broken rib and punctured lung. And he has a bullet in his right leg. He told me when it all happened, he went to fall on his wife to protect her, but she was already gone."

The story was reversed for the Stoddards. At an emotional news conference Tuesday, a daughter, Penny Wilson, said her father "heard the shots and covered my mom with his own body, and protected her and saved her." Wilson's sister, Angela Robinson, added: "It was a beautiful way to say goodbye."

The Stoddards had been sweethearts in the sixth grade but went on to marry other people; after they were both widowed, they got married 15 years ago. Like the Morrises, the Stoddards enjoyed traveling from their base in Tucson. They packed up an RV with their little black dog, Tux, took regular fishing trips and ate breakfast out every Saturday morning, said Marge Osterman, a neighbor and friend.

Schneck and her late husband, Ernest, were typical snowbirds, escaping New Jersey's bitter winters. They moved to Tucson permanently about eight years ago, returning to the East Coast only to visit grandchildren and escape Arizona's dry, hot summers.

"She loved Tucson and had lots of friends there," said her daughter, Phyllis Rautenberg.

Ernest Schneck died in 2007, but Phyllis had settled into life in Northridge Estates, a retirement community with two shuffleboard courts and a small pool built in the early 1970s.

Schneck, who had been a homemaker, decorated her small patio home with photos of her children, grandchildren and late husband. She worked on jigsaw puzzles at her dining room table and stitched aprons. She sold her aprons for church auctions and remained close to her friends in New Jersey, where she had at one time been president of a community women's club. In Arizona, she fit right in.

The Morrises had been high school sweethearts whose bond lasted a lifetime. George flew planes, first for Pan Am based in Germany and later for United. He had a side job selling real estate, and long after he retired from flying in about 1995, he continued to work. Dorothy was his secretary and bookkeeper. They have two daughters, both of whom live in Las Vegas.

Though the Morrises were not well known around Sun City - they were often traveling in their camper - they were generous. Norma Meyers, the community secretary, recalls setting up a donation box last Christmas to solicit socks for homeless military veterans. When George Morris saw the box, he said, "I'm a vet," according to Meyers, and a few days later, he returned with two bags containing 24 pairs of socks.

Pam Sarpalius, 62, who has lived at Sun City for nine years, said she had set up a box for Sun City residents to drop off condolence cards to Morris.

"This community is very friendly, without being nosy," she said. "But when we lose one, it's like a loss for everyone."

nakamurad@washpost.com thompsonk@washpost.com

Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.

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