ThatMoment1The idea cropped up two years ago during a bike ride with a friend.

Steve Simonds was telling Patty Langkopf about his love of flying. How he got his pilot’s license after serving in the Navy during World War II. How he’d flown planes most of his life, for fun and for work.

“Have you ever jumped out of a plane?” Langkopf asked.

“Nope,” Simonds said, “but it’s on my bucket list.”

Simonds, a former state legislator from Cape Elizabeth, was 89 at the time, but neither of them dismissed the idea. They were, after all, on a 20-mile trail ride from Scarborough to Kennebunk. A super-active octogenarian, Simonds regularly kayaked on Casco Bay, and he had recently hiked to the top of Mount Katahdin, cycled in the Maine Senior Games and zip-lined in the Costa Rican rain forest.

Langkopf didn’t let it go. She had been skydiving herself and knew the thrill he was missing. Connected by their mutual involvement in Maine Partners of the Americas, a group that promotes exchanges with Brazil, she kept after him.

“He has such an adventurous spirit,” said Langkopf, 57, a clinical social worker who lives in North Yarmouth. “He’s such a life force, and he has done so many interesting things. I wanted to help him fulfill his bucket list.”

Last month, at age 91, Simonds finally scheduled a jump with Vacationland Skydiving in Pittsfield, just north of Waterville. It would be a new high point in a life chock full of accomplishments, including nine grandchildren, one great-grandchild and a luminous career in social welfare that sent him to Washington, D.C., at the height of the civil rights movement and led him to start a forerunner of the Muskie School of Public Service.

“I’m ready,” Simonds said a few days before the jump, sitting at his kitchen table in South Portland. “For a guy my age, it’s thrilling for somebody to suggest that kind of activity. I’ve been waiting for this for a while, ever since there’s been a thing such as bucket lists.”

A SECOND ATTEMPT

Langkopf learned that Simonds had tried to go skydiving several years ago, before his wife of 57 years died in 2010, but it was called off at the last minute because of high winds. He hadn’t told his wife, Judith, about the jump for fear she’d worry or try to stop him.

Judith Cole Simonds was the love of his life, ever since he spied her in the rear-view mirror while on a blind date with her sister. At the time, he was a caseworker with the New Hampshire Department of Public Welfare. She was a student at the University of New Hampshire, where he’d graduated a few years before on the G.I. Bill.

“People ask me about how I’ve lived my life,” Simonds said. “Luck, luck, luck is so much a part of it. Luck with the parents that I started with. Luck with the woman I married, and what a beautiful, caring person she was. Luck with the four children we had.”

Simonds grew up in Lisbon, New Hampshire, hiking and skiing in the White Mountains. Son of a schoolteacher and a lumber yard manager, he comes from salt-of-the-earth, civic-minded stock. An aunt was one of the state’s first women legislators.

He joined the Navy in 1943, hoping to fly planes, but a minor vision problem put him on a Pacific submarine for three years. It wasn’t the excitement that a gung-ho 18-year-old had anticipated.

“Luckily, I came back,” Simonds said. “I think a lot about those who did not. I wish I had been older. I could have done a lot more.”

After graduating from UNH, he spent two years as a welfare caseworker in New Hampshire. The problems people faced in the late 1940s were largely the same as they are today: hunger, unemployment, homelessness, physical and mental illness, lack of education, substance abuse.

“Everybody ought to have that experience to really understand the human condition, the psychology of being poor and the policy issues involved,” Simonds said. “That’s why I pursued the progressive human service policy changes that I did, to eliminate the causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. To give people a foundation to grow and thrive.”

With a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, he got a Fulbright Scholarship in 1957 to study progressive welfare policy at the University of Bristol in England. He then supervised caseworkers in Connecticut for a couple of years before becoming Maine’s director of social welfare programs under Gov. Kenneth Curtis in 1960. To save time and tax dollars, he flew himself to remote areas of the state to meet with staff and see what services were needed.

PROGRESSIVE POLICY IN ACTION

In 1967, Simonds went to Washington to head the Assistance Payments Administration in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. He found himself at the center of significant socioeconomic change in America. He was a liaison to the National Welfare Rights Organization and interacted with its founder, civil rights leader George Wiley.

He witnessed the Poor Peoples Campaign in May and June of 1968, held just weeks after its primary organizer, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. Thousands set up tents on the National Mall in a protest for social justice that lasted six weeks.

“From my years in the field, I was well acquainted with the challenges and hardships that many people faced,” Simonds recalled. “I was pleased that they were able to call attention to their campaign and get their stories across in a peaceful and nonviolent manner.”

After Richard Nixon became president, Simonds returned to Maine in 1971 and started the Human Services Development Institute, a caseworker research and training program at the University of Southern Maine. He directed the institute for 16 years before he retired, and it eventually became a principal component of the Muskie School.

In the early 1990s, Simonds became the first Democratic legislator elected to represent Cape Elizabeth in more than 80 years – or so he was told. He served two terms, again flying himself to different areas of the state to visit public schools as a member of the education committee. On one memorable occasion, his plane got stuck in a snowbank in Machias and a school principal helped him to shovel free.

“I had some wonderful times flying around the northern tier states, the Green Mountains, the White Mountains and across Maine,” Simonds said, a bit wistful.

But in all those years of flying, he never jumped, something he had wanted to do since he was in the Navy and never got the chance.

AND IT’S JUMP TIME

On the Saturday of the scheduled jump, Simonds arrived at the Pittsfield Municipal Airport right on time with his daughter, Jane Laplante of South Portland, her husband, Dan, and Renee and Aimee, two of their three daughters. Dan, 55, and Aimee, 19, signed up to jump as well.

The family watched for a few hours as Vacationland Skydiving took up more than a dozen other jumpers before Simonds. It was a blue-sky, early autumn day, but intermittent cloud cover and increasing winds threatened to scuttle his second skydiving attempt.

Simonds seemed calm but energized by the sights and sounds of the airfield.

“Are you nervous, Dad?” his daughter asked.

“Nah,” Simonds said, smiling. “What’s the worst that can happen at my age?”

Granddaughter Aimee Laplante, an engineering student at USM, was less nonchalant.

“I’m scared,” she admitted, “but if my 91-year-old grandfather can do it, I’d hate myself if I didn’t.”

If successful, Simonds would have to share the honor of being the oldest jumper on Vacationland’s roster. Another 91-year-old man, who had learned to fly at the Pittsfield airport and had been a pilot in WWII, jumped a few years ago, said co-owner Brad Fisher.

As jump time approached, Simonds signed a liability waiver and listened to a brief orientation talk. Then he zipped into his jump suit with help from Patty Langkopf and met his tandem skydiving instructor and jump partner, Owen Peters.

When his turn came, Simonds hugged his loved ones, strolled across the airfield with Peters and climbed into the red-and-gray-striped Cessna. As everyone watched from below, the plane climbed to about 10,000 feet and headed for a break in the clouds.

Harnessed in front of Peters, Simonds jumped from the belly of the plane. They were in free-fall for about 45 seconds, hurtling toward Earth at about 120 mph, before the parachute opened. Goggles pressed to his face, Simonds concentrated on breathing as instructed. Some of the scenery was familiar from his flying days, including the Dixmont Hills in the distance.

It was all over in about four minutes. Strong winds pushed Simonds and Peters about a mile from their intended landing spot. A golf cart brought them back to the dive shack.

Despite a bumpy landing and the aches and pains that would follow, Simonds was all smiles, invigorated by the mere act of stepping out into air and the hope that everything would go as planned. Luck, once again, was on his side.

“It was great,” Simonds said. “Now, I want to go solo.”