Chicago Woman Skydives at Age 104

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This spring, Dorothy Hoffner said, she had a sudden yearning to fall from 10,000 feet for a second time.

Chicago Woman Skydives at Age 104
“She did a lot better than most people,” said the skydiving instructor who jumped with Dorothy Hoffner at Skydive Chicago.Daniel Wilsey High Flight

Dorothy Hoffner, born in 1918, had survived both the Spanish flu and Covid pandemics, as well as her first skydiving attempt at age 100.

That might explain what was on her mind before her second skydive as she prepared for a roughly 10,000-foot descent.

“What are we having for dinner?” she recalled thinking.

Ms. Hoffner, now 104, had decided sometime in the spring to recapture the feeling of gliding in the air, buoyant, her wavy hair whipped by winds. So on Sunday, Ms. Hoffner was picked up from her home at the Brookdale Lake View senior living center in Chicago and driven to Skydive Chicago’s headquarters. There, she left her walking cane behind before boarding a small plane.

Did she feel nervous? “No,” she said in an interview Monday.

Was she aware that she would be likely to break the Guinness World Record for oldest person in the world to skydive? “Had no idea.”

Strapped to an instructor, Ms. Hoffner jumped off the plane, soaked in views of curly river streams and square patches of land, and made history as she touched down in Ottawa, describing the downward ride as “wonderful” to a small crowd who had gathered to congratulate her.

The skydive quickly captured national attention, with reporters calling her all day Sunday and Monday. “Floating down, it’s so smooth,” she told The Chicago Tribune. “Nice, peaceful,” she said on a local TV station, ABC 7.

By Monday night, though, Ms. Hoffner said she was really quite bewildered that people were that interested.

“They just care about my age,” she said. Everyone seemed so impressed, she added, when really all she did was attach herself to an expert and let him do all the work.

Derek Baxter wears a helmet and sunglasses and smiles next to Dorothy Hoffner, who is wearing a baby blue sweater.
Dorothy Hoffner and her skydiving partner, Derek Baxter, before her jump on Sunday.Daniel Wilsey High Flight

Ms. Hoffner is, of course, not the first person to take on skydiving at an advanced age. In 2014, former President George H.W. Bush marked his 90th birthday by skydiving out of a helicopter above Kennebunkport, Maine. The previous record-holder was 103.

Still, everyone wanted to know: Why had Ms. Hoffner done it? Surely there was some existential explanation, some nugget of carpe diem wisdom to impart or mission to fulfill.

Ms. Hoffner does not seem eager to impart life lessons and does not exactly give off daredevil vibes in conversation. She is afraid of snakes. She loves watching reruns of “M*A*S*H.” Asked if she had been a thrill-seeker growing up, she responded “not really.”

She was born on Dec. 17, 1918, in Chicago, just after World War I ended and as an influenza pandemic was ravaging the world. She grew up poor, couldn’t afford college and worked for Illinois Bell, a telephone company that later became part of AT&T.

Ms. Hoffner said she never married or had children, which gave her life more freedom.

And with that freedom, she said, came bountiful adventure: Trips to Mexico, where she and a friend would ride buses to random dusty or beachy towns; weekend trips across the country, driving in her blue Dodge Coronet; and boat rides on the Danube River in Germany.

“She’s the perfect dinner guest because she has interesting stories,” said Joe Conant, 62, a nurse who met Ms. Hoffner in 2018 at the senior center.

He had been a caregiver for one of Ms. Hoffner’s friends and was struck by her warmth and curiosity.

The day they met, Ms. Hoffner overheard Mr. Conant ask someone what would be served for dinner.

“On the last Sunday of every month, there is no dinner here at the Brookdale; we do a Sunday brunch,” he recalled Ms. Hoffner saying that day. “And you two are going to be sitting with me at my table.”

A friendship sparked. He visited her once a week, and soon, Ms. Hoffner was referring to Mr. Conant as her grandson. He also skydived with Ms. Hoffner on Sunday.

Dorothy Hoffner and Mr. Baxter landing after a successful jump on Sunday.Charles Lane BDM LLC

Reaching a century of life, Ms. Hoffner said, often means living through the deaths of those you love most. Still, new friendships always come, she said, and she found that in Mr. Conant.

In 2019, he mentioned to Ms. Hoffner during dinner that he was going skydiving.

“That sounds really interesting,” she told him. “I think I want to do that.”

Mr. Conant said he was “totally caught off guard, but she was completely serious.” They skydived later that year, and Ms. Hoffner “absolutely loved it,” he said.

Derek Baxter, the instructor at Skydive Chicago who jumped with Ms. Hoffner, said on Monday that he wanted to make sure she could pick her legs up during landing.

“She did it a lot better than most people,” said Mr. Baxter, whose descent with Ms. Hoffner on Sunday was jump No. 10,402 for him.

On the way down, Ms. Hoffner was “hooting and hollering as much as she wanted,” he said.

Video of the jump shows Ms. Hoffner looking around with her eyes wide open under goggles and her baby blue sweater billowing as she parachutes down, seemingly relaxed. (She later lamented that she had forgotten to pray before the dive.)

When she touched down, and the questions started coming about what the dive was like, Ms. Hoffner said she had answered with a version of “I just felt comfortable up there.”

She was more preoccupied with a different question: the location for dinner.

By Sunday afternoon, Ms. Hoffner had her answer — the Tangled Roots brewery in Ottawa. It was time for her second-best treat of the day: a chicken salad special.

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