Gainesville woman jumps into 90th birthday celebration with adrenaline rush
Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 2:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 2:24 p.m.
More than a dozen people were packed into the tiny Cessna Caravan plane Sunday as it slowly climbed into the late-afternoon sky above Putnam County.
Once the plane leveled off, one of the employees of Skydive Palatka walked to a silver-haired woman sitting in the back, strapped in a tandem parachute to Art Shaffer, the owner of the skydiving company.
"Any second thoughts?" the man with the camera asked. Without saying a word, she shook her head, "No."
Renata "Renny" Spitzner has wanted to go skydiving for a long time. She turns 90 on Thursday and decided now was the time.
Renny said she wasn't sure where she got the idea to jump. Her daughter-in-law Karan Newman suggested it might have been after hearing that former President George H.W. Bush tried it on his 85th birthday in 2009.
Her son Chuck Spitzner arranged for Renny to celebrate her birthday a few days early with a weekend jump at the Palatka-Kay Larkin Airport.
Renny wouldn't be skydiving alone. Accompanying her were her three granddaughters -- Kia and Courtney Spitzner, 18 and 27 respectively, and recently married Bailey Zook, 24. Bailey's husband, Brandon Zook, 25, and Katy Jordan, 22, a family friend, also were jumping.
As they rode to the airfield, Courtney asked, "You scared, Kia?"
"I'm not scared," Kia replied.
"If Grams can do it, we can do it,'' Bailey said later.
The talk turned to how Renny maintains her health. Staying active is the key, she said.
"I think it's because you're always dancing,'' said Katie Hart, a family friend.
Renny was excited. This wouldn't be the first adrenaline-driven activity she had done recently. On Feb. 27, she rode the Kraken rollercoaster at SeaWorld Orlando.
"Heavens to Betsy,'' she said. "I don't know how fast it was.''
It's nearly sunset when the plane's doors are opened. The experienced skydivers up front and closer to the doors are going by themselves; the newbies in the back must jump in tandem with an instructor who operates the parachute.
As the first couple of people jump out, Renny says she's not nervous at all. Her outward appearance shows no sign of anxiety.
It looks like she will be the last to jump.
The family arrived at the airport around 9 a.m. and was greeted by about 20 friends with signs and messages cheering Renny on.
After the jumpers watched an instructional video and signed a waiver, the first plane went up. None of the Spitzner party was on it. The people on the ground watched as the skydivers landed with grace, except for one who made a rough, sliding entry.
Nearly three hours after the family arrived at the airport, bad luck set in before Renny and the others could jump. There was a weather hold on flying, because of clouds. There had to be at least a mile of open sky to fly. Renny was told it probably would be after 4 p.m. before anyone could jump.
Undeterred, the family headed to a party for Renny. There, she talked a little about herself.
She was born in 1923 and grew up in South Dakota. For two years during World War II, she served as a secretary in the Navy WAVES, though she was supposed to be a gunnery instructor.
After that, she got married, and she and her husband, Charles "Bud" Spitzner, lived in Spain, Virginia and Tennessee. Her husband died in 2005, and she moved to the Atrium, a Gainesville senior living facility, in 2008.
She has three children, Chuck, Kathi -- both of whom were there for the jump -- and son Marty, who lives in Colorado.
The next few hours were spent at the home of Pat McGee, where several musicians on guitars and mandolins formed a semi-circle with Renny, Courtney and Katy Jordan dancing in the middle.
One of them later sang to Renny his own rendition of the Glenn Miller song "Elmer's Tune":
"What makes a 90-year-old-lady jump out of a plane? In spite of the threat of danger and pain?"
Around 4 p.m., the family headed for the airport once again. Once there, everybody suited up and waited for the flight to get ready.
"I'm ecstatic," Renny said.
Renny's turn was coming up. When asked if she was excited, she replied, "Heavens, yes."
She inched her way to the exit without lingering. She leaned over the edge, and quickly fell off -- almost as if she had been sucked out.
As the plane turned sideways, a quick glimpse of Renny in her freefall could be seen through the window, but not for long before she drifted into one of the aircraft's many blind spots.
The Cessna glided in for a landing while the skydivers were still drifting along. It touched down just before Renny did.
As she landed, a crowd gathered around her to take photos and congratulate her.
A man went in to hug her, and it took her a second to recognize him. It was her son, Marty, who had secretly flown in from Colorado to be there for this family memory. He hid at the airport while she was suiting up so he could surprise her.
"When did you decide you were going to surprise me?" she asked him. They joined the crowd for a champagne toast to Renny, using paper cups.
Shaffer said the oldest person to jump at the airfield is a 94-year-old man who comes in the summer. Renny jokingly said she might go for the record.
As the sun set, everybody gathered around the television outside to watch video footage of Renny's jump. She received a certificate reading "100 percent pure adrenaline," with her name on it, signifying her completion of the jump. "Isn't that neat?" she asked.
The jump, she said, was incredible. "It was everything I thought it would be."