Among his friends, George Russell Weller had a reputation for aging gracefully. National Public Radio even featured Weller and his wife on a report about research into the personality traits of older Americans. They remained active and upbeat despite illnesses and surgeries, the program reported.
On Wednesday, the 86-year-old Weller was at the wheel of his four-door Buick as it sped through a crowded farmers market in downtown Santa Monica, killing at least nine people and sending more than 50 to area hospitals. The gruesome scene was broadcast nationally.
Weller's neighbors and friends Wednesday grieved for him as well as for the victims. They said the gentle, public-spirited cancer survivor would never have committed such an act deliberately.
A retired salesman, Weller spent his free time trying to make his community a better place. He organized book sales for the Santa Monica Friends of the Library board, tutored students at the local high school and helped organize senior activities at his church. He is a devoted Presbyterian and great-grandfather who enjoys history and politics and loves the city of Santa Monica.
"There's not going to be anyone more devastated about this than him," said Mary Roney, who lives two doors down from Weller and his wife of 64 years, Harriet, in a manicured neighborhood near the border between Santa Monica and Brentwood.
"He's a man with no vengeance. He's a person who loved all people and loved all life," said Roney's husband, Herb. "Mr. Weller is an articulate, bright, concerned individual. Of all the people who this could happen to, I can't believe it's him."
Weller was born in Tennessee and grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhoods just east of Santa Monica, records and interviews show.
He graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1934, a year ahead of lifelong friend Jane Gruver. Gruver said she visited the Wellers for about 40 minutes Wednesday morning and that Weller and his wife were in good spirits.
"We just sat around and talked," she said. "He looked particularly good. He was wearing tan pants and looked well-groomed."
Weller and his wife, who graduated from Santa Monica High, met when they were 12 years old because Weller's cousin lived next door to her. "I guess that was love at first sight," Gruver said.
The Wellers graduated from UCLA and were married in 1939 at the Wilshire Crest Presbyterian Church on the Westside near the neighborhood where Weller was raised, Gruver said. They have a daughter, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, according to neighbors.
The white-haired, mustachioed Weller has walked with a cane since hip surgery last year. Police said he had just left the post office at 4th Street and Arizona Avenue and took a wrong turn toward the farmers market, which was filled with shoppers. Instead of applying the brakes, police said, Weller appeared to have hit the gas, slamming into adults, children and produce stalls.
Weller looked stunned and unsteady when he emerged from the Santa Monica police station several hours after the crash.
The Rev. Bill Barnes, associate pastor at Brentwood Presbyterian Church, which the Wellers have attended for more than 35 years, said he was horrified when he heard the news and thought immediately of the awful terror that the Wellers and the victims of the accident must be facing.
"Russ Weller has always been someone who has cared first about his family and about people," said Barnes, who has been associate pastor for 17 years. "He is a caring, loving man. I would say he's one of my heroes. As a man, I would like to live my life the way I've seen his life modeled in community service and love of people."
"I often tell them they are my role model for me for my 80s," said Marilyn Hulquist, who worked with the Wellers on a seniors ministry committee at Brentwood Presbyterian Church and has known them seven years. "I can't say enough. They are just truly the most generous [people], even through illnesses."
Harriet Weller, who uses a walker, is a retired teacher, Hulquist said, and for 20 years worked as a volunteer at Santa Monica Hospital.
Russ Weller was a longtime advocate and volunteer for the city's library, headquartered a few blocks from the scene of Wednesday's tragedy. Weller served several years on the Friends of the Library support group, said Greg Mullen, assistant librarian.
"You absolutely cannot spend your life in sales and not be an optimist," Weller told NPR for the piece on aging, which was broadcast in 1996. "You've got to be able to handle rejection. 'It goes with the territory,' as Willy Loman said."
Outside the Wellers' modest single-story home on 25th Street on Wednesday, the wife and children of the Wellers' gardener came to check on the family.
Bernarda Trinidad, the gardener's wife, said her husband has worked for the Wellers for at least 15 years. Weller often comes out while her husband is working, to ask him how he is and offer their children cookies.
"He's a very good person," Trinidad said in Spanish.