Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Top 25 Lives of Indelible Impact

They blazed trails. They showed courage. They made us cry. They are the 25 on USA TODAY's list of people who moved us in the past quarter-century. Most are famous, but some are ordinary folks in extraordinary situations. Many became accidental leaders, even heroes, whose spirit enriched our lives.

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By Doug Mills, AP

1 9/11 heroes

They saved lives. After the passengers on United Flight 93 learned that the three other jets hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, were deliberately flown into large buildings, they fought back. They attacked the terrorists. Their flight crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa. In New York City, hundreds of firefighters sacrificed their lives to rescue others by racing into the disintegrating twin towers of the World Trade Center.


2 Nelson Mandela

He spent 27 years in prison, much of it doing hard labor, for his activism in fighting racial segregation in South Africa. Upon his release in 1990, he sought reconciliation. Mandela, 88, was the first president of his country to be chosen in fully democratic elections. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. .


3 Princess Diana

The “people’s princess” was beloved for her style and ability to connect with regular people. She married Prince Charles at 20 in a fairy-tale wedding viewed worldwide. She produced two male heirs to the throne, William and Harry, before her marriage ended in divorce. Diana promoted efforts to comfort AIDS sufferers and to rid the world of land mines. She died at 36 in a high-speed car crash in 1997 in Paris.


4 Space shuttle Challenger astronauts

The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff in 1986 as millions of horrified TV viewers watched. All seven crewmembers died, including Christa McAuliffe, an eager junior high school teacher who was scheduled to teach two lessons from space.

AFP/Getty Images

5 Lance Armstrong

“Anything is possible,” he wrote. He won an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France cycling titles from 1999 through 2005 after surgery and chemotherapy in 1996 for testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. Armstrong, 35, started a foundation to raise money for cancer treatment and research, partly through the sale of yellow rubber “Livestrong” wristbands.

The Stamford Advocate

6 Christopher and Dana Reeve

He played Superman, and she was his real-life Lois Lane. Their roles changed in 1995 when he fell from a horse and was paralyzed. They became profiles in courage, lobbying for people with spinal cord injuries. He died of cardiac arrest in 2004 and she of lung cancer in 2006. They left a son, who is now 14.


7 Pope John Paul II

The first Polish pope, he visited more than 100 countries and spoke many languages. He is often credited with fostering the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. In his 26 years as pope, he made public apologies for the church’s wrongdoing, such as its role in the African slave trade and its failure to act during the Holocaust. He died in 2005 at 84.

8 Ryan White

He was just a boy when he was infected with HIV from a blood product used to treat his hemophilia. He was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS at 13 in 1984 and became a symbol of the illness. A cheerful boy who fought for the right to attend public school, he showed that AIDS was not a “homosexual disease.” He died at 18.

9 Man at Tiananmen Square

Alone, he stood before tanks at Tiananmen Square during pro-democracy protests in China in 1989. Video footage showed that when the lead tank veered left, he did the same, and when it moved forward, he held his ground. Eventually onlookers pulled him aside. His identity remains unknown.

10 Mother Teresa

For more than 40 years, the Catholic nun operated a small hospice in Calcutta, India, where the terminally ill could die in peace. She also began a leper colony. “I see God in every human being,” she said. Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she was asked what people can do to promote peace. “Go home and love your family,” she said. She died at 87 in 1997.

11 Oprah Winfrey

“When you see me, you see what is possible,” she said in a commencement address this month at Howard University. Raised in poverty, abused as a child, she sought to uplift and inspire on her talk show. Winfrey, 53, ranked the richest African-American of the 20th century, motivated her fans to read with her book club and helped them understand sexual abuse and racism with her Oscar-nominated performance in The Color Purple.

12 Terri Schiavo

In 1990 at 26, she mysteriously collapsed and suffered brain damage. Eventually, her husband wanted her feeding tube removed to let her die. Her parents argued she was conscious and gave TV media film of her seeming to smile. They battled in court and Congress. Her husband prevailed; she died after the tube was removed in 2005. Her case prompted greater use of living wills.


13 Michael J. Fox

The actor was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991. In testimony before Congress in 1998, his body jerked uncontrollably because he hadn’t taken medication, to show the ravages of the illness. Fox, 45, who won Emmys and Golden Globes for his work on TV, started a foundation to lobby for more research on Parkinson’s and embryonic stem cells.

14 Arthur Ashe

An African-American, he dominated the white world of tennis by winning three Grand Slam titles. He protested apartheid in South Africa, and perhaps most memorably, handled tragedy with grace. After learning in 1988 that he had contracted HIV from tainted blood transfusions, he spoke for AIDS sufferers worldwide. He died of AIDS complications in 1993.


15 U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, 1999

Their World Cup title win on U.S. soil energized girls in sports. Brandi Chastain, scoring the final penalty kick, tore off her jersey, showing a sports bra, and fell to her knees, fists clenched in victory. “Momentary insanity,” she said later. She and teammates Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy have hung up their cleats. In the past year, each became a mother.

16 Megan Kanka & Jessica Lunsford

Their deaths frightened us into action. The girls, ages 7 and 9, respectively, were raped and murdered, Megan in 1994 and Jessica in 2005, each by a convicted sex offender. To protect other children, states and Congress passed laws that require sex offenders to register their addresses.

17 Mattie Stepanek

At 3, he began writing poems to cope with the death of an older brother who suffered, like him, from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Before his death at age 13 in 2004, he had published five books of poetry, three of them best sellers.

18 Bono

He’s famous as the Grammy-winning lead singer and lyricist for the Irish rock band U2, but he’s inspired people as an activist for Africa and poor countries. His humanitarian work promotes trade, debt relief and AIDS awareness.

19 Pat Tillman

He embodied patriotism. He gave up a multimillion-dollar contract with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks. He served in Iraq and later Afghanistan, where he was killed in 2004. At first, the Army said the cause was enemy fire, but an investigation found that he was shot accidentally by U.S. soldiers.

20 Muhammad Ali

A tough guy with a heart and a three-time World Heavyweight Champion, the retired boxer, 65, devotes his energies to humanitarian causes that include hunger and poverty relief. In a memorable moment, Ali accepted the Olympic torch in 1996 and, hands shaking from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, lit the flame that would burn throughout the games.

Getty Images

21 Steve Irwin

The Crocodile Hunter had a fearless joy. The Australian wildlife expert achieved worldwide fame from a TV series he co-hosted with his wife, Terri. He was killed last September, pierced in the chest by a stingray spine while snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.

22 Jessica McClure

Her ordeal captivated a nation. She was 18 months old when she fell into a well in Midland, Texas, in 1987. Rescuers worked 58 hours to free her from an 8-inch-wide pipe. McClure, 21, married last year and had a baby girl. “She’s just a normal person with a famous name,” says her high school principal, Scott Knippa.

23 “Baby M”

She is the baby who first illuminated the thorny issues of surrogate parenting. Melissa Stern, her real name, is the biological child of William Stern and Mary Beth Whitehead, the surrogate hired to carry her. Once she was born, a tearful Whitehead refused to give her up. A court awarded Stern custody. Melissa is a junior at George Washington University in Washington.

24 Matthew Shepard

The killing of this gay 21-year-old college student brought national attention to the issue of hate crimes. In October 1998, he met two men in a Wyoming bar who later savagely beat him, tied him to a fence in a remote area and left him. He was found barely alive. Candlelight vigils were held worldwide until he died five days later. barely alive. Candlelight vigils were held worldwide until he died five days later.


25 Elian Gonzalez

He was 5 when the small boat carrying him and 13 others escaping Cuba sank in 1999, killing his mother. He survived on an inner tube and was taken in by relatives in Miami. His father in Cuba wanted him back, and Attorney General Janet Reno ordered his return. When the relatives balked, armed federal agents stormed their house and found Elian hiding in the closet. He lives with his father.

Reported and written by USA TODAY’s Wendy Koch. Design by Michael B. Smith. Photo research by Evan Eile and Kate Patterson.