Woman, 85, shortens her bucket list
By CATHY DYSON
The “crazy” great-grandmother jumped out of a perfectly good airplane so she could check another item off her bucket list.
Phyllis Palestri celebrated her 85th birthday Saturday by going 2 miles up in the air, then dropping out of a beautiful blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds.
She wasn’t the oldest person to ever take the leap at Skydive Orange, but she was part of an unusual trio.
Palestri’s daughter and granddaughter took the plunge with her, making three generations of parachutists.
“That’s cool as hell,” said instructor Chris Margand.
Palestri had wanted to jump from an airplane since she watched her granddaughter-in-law do it last year.
“It just looked like fun,” said the woman who lives in Unionville, a few miles from the Orange County Airport. “They all came back smiling, except for one who threw up on the ground, but we won’t talk about that.”
The great-grandmother wasn’t disappointed with her flight, though she did expect it to be scarier.
Maybe her daughter was frightened enough for the both of them.
Debbie Goddard, 55, had a what-did-I-get-myself-into look before she ever boarded the plane. After the jump, her first words were: “Never, ever again.”
Her mother walked over to her, and Goddard said: “My eyes stayed closed the whole time.”
“Oh, you sissy,” Palestri said. “You didn’t even see the sights.”
“Oh my God, I can’t stop shaking,” said the younger woman.
“I thought it was fun,” replied the older one. “I’m ready to go again next month.”
‘SHE IS KINDA CRAZY’
Two years ago, when the family went to the Caribbean, Palestri talked them into going scuba-diving with her.
“You drag us into everything,” said Goddard. She was still cheerful then, when her plane and feet were both on the ground. “I think you’d be willing to do anything.”
Palestri recalled graduating from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1948, where she studied chemical engineering. She was the only girl in her class.
“So, she’s smart and crazy,” Goddard added.
Palestri worked as a chemical engineer and scientific programmer. She also was a computer consultant and took time off between the births of her two daughters.
Born in Minnesota, Palestri lived all over the East Coast until 18 years ago, when she moved to Lake of the Woods, where she still has a lot of friends. She lives with her daughter and son-in-law, Gordon, and helps take care of their alpacas and llamas.
She has six grandchildren, one great-grandchild and another on the way.
“She is kinda crazy,” said Lindsey Goddard, the 19-year-old granddaughter who also skydived. “Whenever we want to go somewhere or do something, she always wants to go. She probably does more stuff than me.”
Palestri stays busy bowling, playing golf and going out with friends.
She paid for her skydiving trip with money won from the slot machines at Charles Town Races two weeks ago.
So the woman who was a pioneer in her field and is “disgustingly healthy,” according to her doctor, clearly has an adventuresome side. Does she also smoke, drink and party at all hours?
“I don’t smoke,” she said. “And I have a margarita every afternoon. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
‘OH, BOY, IT’S EXCITING’
Palestri turned 85 on Feb. 23 but had to wait five months to find someone to go skydiving with her.
She called and emailed about 30 friends and relatives, and “all I got was ‘You’re crazy, ‘No,’ or ‘Hell, no,’” Palestri said.
The only one who responded initially was Nancy King, who’s 58 and bowls with her. King knows her friend’s competitive nature and wasn’t surprised at Palestri’s plan.
“I was more surprised when she told me she was 85,” King said. “I was totally blown away.”
The two picked July 14, then Palestri’s granddaughter signed up, too. The morning of the flight, Debbie Goddard figured, “Why not?”
More than 15 friends and relatives gathered under shaded picnic tables to watch Palestri and company.
“I had no idea you were such a risk-taker,” said her friend Joan Greene.
Another friend, Millie Gries, said “courage” was the only word she could think of to describe Palestri’s actions.
“Oh, boy, it’s exciting,” Gries said.
Palestri said she’s lucky to have strong bones and she plans to keep them that way.
“You’ve got to lead an active life,” she said. “If you keep running, the grim reaper can’t catch you.”
‘GOOD FOR AN OLD LADY’
Chuck Hashek, an instructor and the president of Skydive Orange, guided Palestri through the lesson beforehand and did the tandem jump with her.
As she put on the necessary gear, he helped her tighten the body harness.
“You OK, or is that killing you?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” she said. “It just feels like I have a load in my pants.”
She slipped on the goggles and the cap “to give you that Amelia Earhart look,” Hashek said.
Then, she answered a few questions about why she wanted to skydive from Grayson Hoffman, who had his camera rolling.
He’s one of several independent contractors who jump with the students and videotape them as they make the initial leap, then free fall for about 60 seconds.
Hoffman and other photographers get to the ground before the students so they can record their landing.
Palestri looked a little nervous as she stood in the doorway of the plane, then grinned when she was in the air. Her thumbs went up and the skin on her face fluttered in the breeze.
She loved being able to see surrounding countryside on the descent, going as fast as 120 miles per hour.
She landed on her feet, but looked a little wobbly at first Once she got firm footing, Hashek kissed her cheek and praised her for an awesome job.
“She’s very strong for her age,” he told a reporter. “I would have guessed she was about 43.”
He turned to Palestri, who started smiling again and getting hugs from those around her.
“They say only 2 percent of Americans ever go skydiving,” Hashek said later. He lowered his voice and said to Palestri: “So now you’re a badass.”
Palestri’s daughter thought so, too. After she cooled down in the skydive building, she was impressed with what her 85-year-old mother had done.
“Pretty good for an old lady,” she said.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425