Chicago woman oldest skydiver

Jumped for Guinness record days before death at age 104

Last week, a 104-year-old woman looked down about 13,500 feet from an airplane and prepared to jump. When Dorothy Hoffner began her skydive, she embraced the freedom of soaring through the air while marveling at the grassy landscape of Ottawa, Ill.

After Hoffner landed, a crowd of spectators cheered while TV reporters chased her for interviews. She fielded dozens of interview requests in the following days, becoming known nationally for potentially breaking the world record for the oldest person to skydive.

A week after the skydive, which she described as "wonderful," Hoffner died in her sleep sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning at her Chicago senior living center, according to her close friend Joe Conant. Conant told The Washington Post that Hoffner's death was unexpected, but he's glad that she cherished her final days.

"After finding out that she was setting a world record, she wasn't interested in that at all," said Conant, 62. "She was just looking forward to going skydiving."

Hoffner grew up in Chicago and worked as a telephone operator for Illinois Bell, which later became part of AT&T, for more than four decades, Conant said. She never married or had children, Conant said, but she enjoyed beach vacations in Mexico and driving her blue Dodge Coronet.

Hoffner had lived in the Brookdale Lake View senior living center for roughly the past decade, Conant said. Conant, a nurse, met Hoffner in 2017 when he started caring for a man there. Conant said he and his patient were figuring out when meals were served when Hoffner invited them to eat brunch with her in the dining area.

The trio ate dinner together almost every night, and Hoffner started calling Conant her grandson, Conant said. Hoffner was known for carrying candy -- Heath bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and dark-chocolate Hershey's Kisses -- in her walker. She stayed active, walking 4½ blocks to the grocery store multiple times a week and going on walks to get a look at the neighborhood's dogs, Conant said. She watched every Chicago Cubs game on a TV in her room and also enjoyed watching "M*A*S*H" reruns, Conant said.

In 2019, Conant told Hoffner over dinner that he was going skydiving at Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Ill. When Hoffner said she wanted to come, Conant thought she meant as an observer.

"No, no, no, I want to jump out of a plane," Conant recalled Hoffner saying.

Conant worried Hoffner would injure herself, but he said Hoffner loved the experience.

This April, Hoffner told Conant that she wanted to skydive again. Conant saw that Guinness World Records listed a 103-year-old woman from Sweden who jumped from a plane in May 2022 as the oldest person to skydive.

"I had no question in my mind that she could handle it," Conant said. "If she could do it when she was 100, she could do it when she was 104, because she seemed like the exact same person."

Ahead of the skydive, local news outlets reported on Hoffner, who didn't like the publicity, Conant said. She joked with Conant that she was going to give him a black eye if she had to do interviews, Conant said. But she grew to like the attention as she built relationships with reporters, Conant said.

On Oct. 1, about 75 spectators arrived at Skydive Chicago's hangar as Hoffner pushed her red walker toward a white Skyvan plane. She left her walker outside of the plane as instructors helped her climb the steps. She strapped on goggles as she prepared to jump.

Wind pushed back her white hair as she fell. Her favorite part of the experience was when her instructor released the parachute, sending them higher into the air, Conant said. Plus, she loved how the Fox River looked like a small line from the sky, Conant said.

After circling in the air for about seven minutes, Hoffner landed on the grass. Instructors helped her stand up, and she regained balance with her walker.

"Age is just a number," she told spectators, according to the Associated Press.

Other people who were skydiving posed for pictures with her, Conant said. Hoffner was overwhelmed with media attention, telling Conant that she now knew "how the royals feel," Conant said.

That evening, Hoffner and Conant went to the Lone Buffalo in Ottawa, where Hoffner ate a salad with chicken and shared a beer with Conant. The next day, Hoffner's cousins visited her and were shocked when they saw her picture in the Chicago Tribune, Conant said. Hoffner hadn't told them she had skydived.

National publications picked up her story, but Hoffner, who didn't own a cellphone, seemed nonchalant about the attention, Conant said. Conant said he's finishing paperwork to submit Hoffner's skydive to Guinness World Records.

Conant said he spoke with Hoffner on Sunday. They were planning to eat dinner at the senior living center the next evening while she completed more interviews.

But Conant said he was shocked when the living center's director told him Monday that he had found Hoffner dead that morning.

"I really was expecting to go skydiving with her again when she was 105," Conant said.

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