The legacy of Gabe Zimmerman

TUCSON, Ariz. — The ragtag group of trail runners shiver in the early morning air, the sun just barely beginning to creep over the mountains, as an affable-looking man with bright blue eyes and a ready smile steps to the center. Even on this day, just one week after his son Gabe Zimmerman was killed along with five others in Tucson, Ross Zimmerman greets the folks who encircle him with handshakes, hugs and questions more typical of a father than the director of a trail-running group. 

This wasn’t an organized memorial event open to the general public; the dozens of media trucks and flurry of press that had swarmed Tucson in response to the Jan. 8 shootings were nowhere to be found. Instead, the two dozen or so men and women — several who have known the Zimmerman family for decades — looked like any other group of runners preparing to hit the popular trail. Their purpose, however, was of a different sort — to honor Gabe as a person, not as a victim.

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“I don’t want Gabe to be remembered because of what a troubled, disturbed and sick child did last Saturday,” Ross Zimmerman said at the time. “I want Gabe to be remembered for who he was. Gabe was good; he always was.”

The nation would come to know Gabe Zimmerman as the congressional aide who was shot and killed during a “Congress on Your Corner” event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) at a Safeway on Tucson’s northwest side. 

Two months after the shootings, Ross Zimmerman is as determined as ever that Gabe be remembered for how he lived, and not only for how he died. He is quick to recall Gabe’s genius for communication and natural athletic ability, and makes special note of his son’s engagement to Kelly O’Brien, a Tucson Medical Center nurse whom he admiringly describes as a 5-foot, 1-inch force of nature. He’s equally candid about his struggle to adjust to life without his son. In this new reality, Ross Zimmerman says there’s only one acceptable path forward: to follow Gabe’s lead.

“I’m still not thrilled about going through the next 30 years without Gabe,” Ross Zimmerman said. “But I realize there are a lot of reasons why we need to. And while we’re here, we need to do a good job and have a good attitude about it.”

Tucson’s response

Ross Zimmerman isn’t alone in his grief or desire to pull something positive out of the tragedy, in which six people died and 13 others were wounded, including Giffords.

The mini-labyrinth of candles, cards and flowers once displayed on the front lawn at the University of Arizona Medical Center has long since been removed — the grass barely hinting at the hundreds of visitors who walked throughout the impromptu memorial site. Still, the outpouring of support persists. 

“Tucson is a generous town and a kind town,” said Emily Nottingham, Gabe’s mother. “And there’s been a lot of response from people wanting to do something. Whether it’s just to say, ‘That’s not what our town is about,’ or whether it’s been a more personal response — it’s been real. 

“There’s a lot of activity,” she said. “I’m just hopeful that activity provides some meaningful action and maybe some sustainable action over time. Not all of it will be; some of it is just a nice memory, and that’s OK, too.”

The efforts are as small as the black-and-white ribbons still worn by strangers and Giffords’s staffers alike and as large as the recent $100,000 donation to the Arizona State University School of Social Work to establish an endowed scholarship honoring Zimmerman, who earned his master’s degree there in 2006.

Then there’s Brian Walker, a licensed psychologist and friend of Ross Zimmerman’s, who says he was inspired to reach out to the community. Walker has proposed a series of anger-management and violence-prevention workshops to be held at Pima Community College, the same institution that alleged shooter Jared Loughner once attended. 

“It makes sense to try and build on both the political and community outpouring of good will and civility,” said Ron Barber, Giffords’s district director. “We have this pause in the battle, and maybe in this moment, we can actually hold on to some of these ideas and take some pragmatic action.

“For all of us it’s sort of an evolving thing,” he said, “but we all feel the same way: that we can do better, that what happened was an aberration of our town, and who we are is what happened afterwards.” 

Lucky to be alive, impatient to heal

Barber, who was shot twice, is a fidgety ball of impatient energy even as he reclines in a leather chair aimed at alleviating the swelling in his leg. He speaks passionately about his desire to return to work. He’s anxious to heal and has busied himself — in between his physical therapy sessions — with the organization his family created in the wake of the shootings, the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, and its upcoming benefit concert. Still, Barber is keenly aware that his wounds run deep and his recovery is a long way off. 

By all accounts, Barber is lucky to be alive. A “dimple” marks the spot where a bullet entered his cheek before it exited out his neck, missing his carotid artery by two millimeters. A second bullet severed the femoral vein in his left leg. Barber has been told he would have probably bled to death if it weren’t for the efforts of Anna Ballis, a stranger who came to his aid. 

He isn’t particularly surprised by his emotional scars or diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, considering that he remembers what happened in vivid detail. 

“Being conscious the whole time and seeing the congresswoman being shot, and then seeing what happened to Gabe and [U.S. District Judge] John Roll, those memories are just fixed in my head,” said Barber, who also is undergoing emotional therapy. “They’ll be with me forever, I’m pretty sure of that. But how I deal with them is sort of key for me.”

The constituent whisperer

Gabe’s death hangs heavily over Barber as much for what he witnessed as for the loss itself. Gabe was his first hire — his deputy and right-hand man — after Giffords was sworn into office in January 2007. He trusted and relied on Gabe and admired his ability to not only calm frustrated citizens but also solve their problems. Gabe was dubbed the “constituent whisperer” for good reason, Barber said. 

“It was very hard to ever see Gabe annoyed with the world because, well, he loved the world,” said Matt Eklund, a Pima County prosecutor and a friend since elementary school. “It was, quite simply, effortless for him.”

Eklund, a self-described libertarian and cynic, said Gabe changed his worldview over the years through computer gaming sessions, one-on-one basketball and philosophical arguments that could span weeks.

“Gabe was always much more altruistic and believed deeply in that social contract kind of stuff, where I was the opposite,” Eklund recently recounted. “And truthfully, in all of our years together, I think he pulled me in some measure in his direction.” 

Gabe’s influence has hardly faded, especially at Giffords’s district office, where he worked as constituent services supervisor and community outreach director. That dual role meant Gabe had trained most of the district staff, said C.J. Karamargin, Giffords’s communications director. 

“Not a day has passed where I haven’t thought of Gabe,” Karamargin said. “Not a workday has passed when something has happened when I wish I could tell Gabe — and I’m not alone. 

“I think that’s Gabe’s legacy — that desire to continue the work that both the congresswoman has asked us to do and that Gabe would want us to do,” he said.