‘Indefatigable’ Chicago Woman Whose Skydive at 104 Drew Admiration Dies

Dorothy Hoffner, the centenarian who gained international adoration for skydiving at age 104 earlier this month, all while exhibiting an air of blasé disregard for the attention the feat brought her, died in her sleep overnight Sunday into Monday at her home in Chicago.

Joe Conant, a nurse who had known Ms. Hoffner for around five years and whom she had referred to as her grandson, said Tuesday that a cause of death had yet to be determined.

Born on Dec. 17, 1918, Ms. Hoffner last week had her life briefly transform from one of relative quiet — she loved watching reruns of “M*A*S*H” at night in the Brookdale Lake View senior living center where she lived — to one packed with calls from reporters and TV producers trying to schedule interviews.

That interest was prompted by her unusual endeavor: parachuting off a plane at such an advanced age on Oct. 1, not to prove some existential point about seizing every thrill, but simply because she wanted to. After all, the first time she had gone skydiving at, age 100, it had been fun, Ms. Hoffner said in an interview last week.

Still, it was her recent 10,000-foot descent that turned Ms. Hoffner, for many admirers, into an example of how to live life to the fullest or, at the very least, the embodiment of the belief that doing something exciting at an older age is normal.

As she told it, there was no hubris in Ms. Hoffner before she boarded the small plane that she would later drop from while strapped to an instructor. Instead, Ms. Hoffner said, she was thinking: “What are we having for dinner?” That thought changed little even after she had touched down and was informed that she had probably broken the Guinness World Record for the oldest person in the world to skydive.

Mr. Conant, 62, said that Ms. Hoffner was initially “not excited” about all the attention she received from the news media last week. But by the weekend, he said, the attention had grown on her because “she looked at it as an opportunity to meet new people.”

During her interviews, she asked reporters about their lives and appeared uninterested in talking about her upbringing in Chicago in the early 20th century, after World War I had ended and as an influenza pandemic was raging.

Ms. Hoffner waved to the crowd as she stood with her tandem jumper, Derek Baxter, left, and her friend Joe Conant. She was told her jump in Ottawa, Ill., earlier this month probably broke a Guinness World Record.Credit…Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune, via Associated Press

Still, Ms. Hoffner would share the basics: She grew up poor, couldn’t afford college and worked at Illinois Bell, a telephone company that later became part of AT&T.

She never married or had children, which she long believed had granted her more freedom and adventure: boat rides on the Danube in Germany, where she ate meals underneath starlight and listened to the tinkling of the water; weekend road trips in her blue Dodge Coronet; and random beach vacations in Mexico.

Among her friends, Ms. Hoffner was known for her favorite saying, a twist on a Bible verse: “I go by ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” she said. “So I love all my neighbors. Of course, I don’t like them all.”

Mr. Conant, who spoke with Ms. Hoffner on the phone almost daily, recalled that someone from “The Drew Barrymore Show” spoke with Ms. Hoffner for roughly an hour last week, asking about details of her life. At the end of the call, the person asked if Ms. Hoffner would be interested in a televised interview.

“No, I’m good,” she replied, Mr. Conant said.

Ms. Hoffner then joked with Mr. Conant, who had also skydived with her this month and helped arrange to have footage taken of the descent, that she would give him a black eye for getting her wrapped up in all the attention.

Mr. Conant said he last spoke with Ms. Hoffner at the senior center on Sunday and that she looked in good spirits as they reminisced about the skydiving hoopla.

Mr. Conant said he had always been struck by Ms. Hoffner’s kindness and wit. She invited him to dinners and brunches, stayed up until midnight to talk with him after his shifts at the hospital, and, of course, unexpectedly told him that she had an itch to do that skydiving thing again.

She liked the feeling up there, she had said, of falling yet remaining momentarily afloat, her shirt billowing as she looked down at a wide expanse of earth.

“She was always so indefatigable,” Mr. Conant said.

Before parting on Sunday, they had hugged.

“I love you, my grandson,” Ms. Hoffner said, promising to see him again soon for dinner.

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