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Ottawa octogenarian takes to the sky

Grandmother enjoys ‘spur of the moment’ experiences

It wasn’t until Mary Thurwanger, 85, of Ottawa, inched closer to the door of the plane and looked down that she began to have second thoughts about jumping.

But that fear only lasted moments before she hopped out of the plane and began her descent back to Earth.

Mary decided on a whim to visit Skydive Chicago after the Rev. Gary Caster, of St. Columba, shared his experience in the church’s bulletin.

“I’m not going to do any of the fancy stuff,” Mary said prior to the jump, referencing mid-air tricks. “I’m taking the scenic route down.”

Mary at first was hesitant, but Sunday afternoon’s jump was paid for by her six children – Donna Walton, Mary Ann Van Grevenhot, Kathy Fultz, Janet Cetwinski, Gary Thurwanger and David Thurwanger – as an early Christmas gift. The event proved to be a reunion for the family with more than 30 cheering her on from the ground.

Mary has stage 4 cancer, first diagnosed eight years ago when she noticed two spots on her eye. She’s had radiation treatments a couple of times, but the cancer returned.

Still, she said her recent escapades are not related to cancer.

“I don’t have a bucket list or anything. I’m a spur-of-the-moment kind of person,” Mary explained.

She watched a video before her jump to prepare her for what to do in the air, then slipped on a green jumpsuit and prepared to board the plane.

“Don’t I look cute?” she asked family while doing a pre-jump dance.

When asked if she was nervous, she raised her hand, which began to shake, then it quickly became firm again and was punctuated with a laugh.

“No, maybe a tad, but not much,” she said.

Luckily, she wouldn’t be in the air alone as she would jump with her granddaughter, Nicole Thurwanger, 29, of Ottawa, and her boyfriend, Dustin VonRuden of Streator.

She was also in good hands with her tandem partner Tim Koeppen of Skydive Chicago, who has more than
9,200 jumps under his belt.

“She was a blast,” Koeppen said. “We got in the door and she was just, ‘Let’s go!’ ”

“Really, I hope to be jumping when I’m 80, too,” he added.

For Mary, she enjoyed the “beautiful” view and was able to enjoy a quiet and comfortable drop to the ground. She plans to return for her 90th birthday.

Nicole said it was fun to see her grandmother jump out of the plane right before her.

“I probably never would have (jumped), so Grandma got me out here,” she said.

Many of her family have taken part in Mary’s more recent adventures, including her daughter, Kathy.

“She waited until she was what, 60, to learn how to swim?” Kathy asked.

“Yeah, and 80 when I tried (downhill) skiing, but I wasn’t strong enough to put the brakes on,” Mary said as she moved her feet in the grass, demonstrating how to slow down on skis.

She also rode a motorcycle through the Black Hills mountain range in her late 70s and recently went go-karting and ATV riding for the first time in Peoria.

“Yeah, the problem with the go-kart is (Kathy) said I drove like an old lady. Well, I am an old lady!” Mary said with a laugh.

She also produced a book, “A Lost Art: Letters of Love and Family,” which consisted of a year’s worth of letters she and her late husband, LeRoy, wrote to each other when he was serving in the Korean War.

“We wrote every day for a year.
I just saved some of them and (my children) put it into a book,” Mary said.

She recalled that her husband would have been supportive of her skydiving experience, if a little hesitant.

“He would say go for it, but he’d be worried to death. He worried if he didn’t have anything to worry about,” she said to laughs from the family.

However, for those considering skydiving in the future, her response is simple.

“Oh, definitely,” she said. “Go for it!”

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