April 2, 2012
When Mary Ann Barnett turned 90 last July, she told her family she wanted to skydive sometime soon. They knew to take her seriously.
So in January her granddaughter, Tiffany Barnett, made her a proposal.
And so the two ascended to 18,000 feet March 17, two days after Tiffany turned 30, and jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.
"I did it. I enjoyed it. And I'm ready to do it again," Mary Ann Barnett said.
The St. Augustine grandma said her nerves never really got to her until the professional skydiver she tandem-jumped with began a three-second countdown.
"I said, 'Oh dear, how do I get out of this?' " she said. "It's a little too late, and off we went."
Barnett said they free-fell for about 30 seconds and then, with the parachute deployed, took in the views. She complimented the professional skydiver for a smooth, harmless landing.
She said she had always wanted to skydive and had told her husband of 54 years several times that people should try everything at least once.
That free-spirited will could be applied to her entire life.
Raised in Ohio, Barnett said her father didn't like the idea of her joining the Coast Guard during "the war" in 1943. After all, she was one of the first women to do so, assigned to work as a secretary with limits in those days on what jobs females could perform.
"I had five brothers, five sister-in-laws, two brother-in-laws and three sisters," she said. "I had too many bosses. And I said I'm going into the service to be my own boss. Little did I know they told me what to do from the time I woke up in the morning till the time I went to bed at night."
Barnett eventually won her father's support, and her nearly three years in the Coast Guard also led to her marriage with husband Fred Barnett, who was stationed along with her in St. Augustine.
The loss of her husband 12 years ago was something that hit her hard, Barnett said, lowering her inhibitions. But in that down time, she turned to something she loved for therapy, something that led her to start a nonprofit.
Barnett founded Happy Hookers — its name refers to a crochet hook — along with two other women in 2002. The group crochets hats, beanies and afghans, mostly for use by premature babies and the elderly. They have donated about 5,000 items to area hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.
Ninety percent of the organization's materials are donated and all eight of its members are retired women, mostly widows, she said.
"Right now I have two afghans ready to go. I'm making them to look like Easter eggs with blue and pink."
Barnett's work with Happy Hookers began just after she was given a clean bill of health after a bout with breast cancer. As she does in the charity events she participates in, she wore all pink the day of the skydive, right down to her shoes and undergarments, she said.
Tiffany Barnett, who lives in Jacksonville, said she obviously had fears for her grandmother going into the jump, but now calls it one of the greatest experiences of her life. She also called her grandmother her "idol," hoping she can only live half the life she has.
"She would be the icon that I think every grandmother should be," Barnett said. "There's not enough words to explain how great of a woman she is."
Skydive Jacksonville, based near Herlong Airport, said Barnett was the oldest person to jump from its Jacksonville location. But a 92-year-old did skydive from its Titusville location.
"Maybe I'll jump out then, too. Maybe I'll jump out at 104," she said, again, free-spirited.
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