The activities calendar for Dale Commons includes bunco, bingo and blackjack; outings to the Stanislaus County Fair and Black Oak Casino; and monthly day trips to destinations such as the San Francisco Zoo and the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville.
It does not include sky diving.
But that’s how LeRoy Nygaard, a resident of the senior-living complex, celebrated his 85th birthday this month. And he was joined by friends and family including Dale Commons’ general manager and activities director.
Don’t expect to see the high-flying sport popping up on the activities guide, though. “I don’t think they’d be interested, but LeRoy’s a different stroke of character,” said activities director Andrew Coronado. “He’s a great guy. Eighty-five and sky diving – that’s how I hope to be.”
Nygaard’s indeed a different kind of guy. The kind who buys an airplane at age 40, not knowing how to fly, but figuring that owning one would force him to learn. He’s since owned 12 more, some with partners, said the retired government auditor and property investor.
As a “weekend pilot,” Nygaard said, he logged more than 3,200 hours in the air. He was in the Civil Air Patrol, volunteered his time to help law enforcement with aerial drug surveillance, flew patients to medical treatment through the Angel Flight program and carried doctors on mission trips into Mexico more than a dozen times. He also noted he was IFR (instrument flight rules) rated to fly through clouds.
But a couple of years ago, Nygaard found himself losing interest in flying. And one day, after a couple of months off, he was in cockpit of a small, fast aircraft and “realized I was losing my proficiency.” So he gave up being a pilot.
Everybody told me you don’t jump out of a perfectly good airplane, so I had to prove them wrong.
That does not mean, though, that he gave up taking to the sky. For his 75th birthday, Nygaard decided to sky dive for the first time. “Everybody told me you don’t jump out of a perfectly good airplane, so I had to prove them wrong,” he joked.
He enjoyed the experience enough that he repeated it for his 77th and 80th birthdays. And now his 85th.
Other than involving an airplane, there’s no comparison between flying and sky diving, Nygaard said. “Piloting a plane is more of a challenge than jumping out,” he said. “Jumping out is just for the moment, but piloting is consistent.”
And when you jump in tandem, as he’s done, there’s no skill to sky diving, only guts, he said. Watching a video and getting a briefing were the only things he’s had to do before jumps. The professional diver and instructor on your back does the work – you’re just along for the ride, he said.
But, oh, what a ride.
“It’s exhilarating,” Nygaard said. Even after several jumps, “it still gets your adrenaline going when that door rolls up.”
That rush is something Nygaard’s granddaughter Courtney Nawrocki has been wanting to experience for years. Her mom, Marla McGregor – daughter of LeRoy and his wife, Verna – urged Nawrocki to hold off until her 21st birthday.
My grandpa and I have talked about doing a sky dive together since I was little, and we’d both been waiting for this day for a long time.
That birthday arrived in March, so the deal was struck that Nawrocki would join her grandfather as he took his birthday leap. “My grandpa and I have talked about doing a sky dive together since I was little, and we’d both been waiting for this day for a long time,” she said in an email. “It was amazing getting to experience something like that with someone I love and look up to so much. It will definitely be one of my most favorite memories with him!”
Coronado, too, thanks Nygaard for introducing him to one of the “best experiences of my life.” The 25-year-old said he’s wanted to sky dive since watching the 1991 Keanu Reeves-Patrick Swayze movie, “Point Break.”
This wasn’t just the first time Coronado jumped from an airplane, it was his first time in a plane, period. He described it as “four to eight seconds of fear” as the door opened and divers began to exit, followed by pure excitement. The minute or so of free falling was a deafening roar, he said. But when the chute deployed, “I got this sense of relief and then could hear exactly what the instructor behind me was saying.” Coronado said he loved being able to pull straps to help steer the dive.
Another of the divers, Nygaard’s friend Kiran Prasad, said the jump was “awesome, the thrill of a lifetime.” She said she was nervous when it came time to jump, “but when I went to the door and put one foot out, there was no going back.”
Guess that’s true – there’s no jumping back into the airplane.
“As soon as I came down,” Prasad said, “I said I wanted to do it again.”
Sharing the thrill of sky diving with friends and loved ones is what the weekend’s jump was all about, Nygaard said. “It all started, with ‘Pa, can we go sky diving one day?’ ”
He said his daughter Marla McGregor, a health educator with Sutter Gould Medical Foundation, has been apprehensive about joining in, but seems to be warming to the idea. After the jump, Nygaard said, “She said, ‘Maybe we should all do this as a family next year,’ so who knows?”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327