Jack Hart of Davidson, who made headlines earlier this summer by going skydiving just a couple of months shy of his 100th birthday, died Tuesday after a brief bout with pancreatic cancer. He had lived 100 years, 2 weeks and 1 day.
Born and raised in Spokane, Wash., Hart graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1941 and enlisted in the Navy with hopes of being a pilot, but due to a propensity for airsickness, he settled for boat duty.
After completing his service, he worked as a cryptanalyst for the FBI and the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service; the latter post saw him working to break Japanese code as part of a joint U.S./British group called “The Secret 17” that was based in New Delhi, India, during World War II.
He married a woman who also was in cryptanalysis for the FBI in the ‘40s — Sara “Sally” Harrison Hart — and they eventually had two children: son John, currently of Falls Church, Va., and daughter Carolyn, who lives in Huntersville. They were married 62 years, many of which were spent in the Carolinas, where they owned a small acoustical tile ceiling company for several decades. Sally Hart died in 2006.
After that, Jack Hart threw himself into volunteering, primarily with Our Towns Habitat for Humanity in Cornelius. Over the next several years, he logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours, helping with fundraising, fixing furniture and fans at Habitat ReStores, and repeatedly serving as the oldest volunteer (by far) on Habitat trips to Guatemala to build block houses and smokeless stoves for needy families.
In 2011, at age 93, Hart got a yeast infection in his esophagus that led to aspiration pneumonia, and he was on a feeding tube for months until he re-learned to swallow with the help of a speech therapist. But he made a full recovery, and would continue to live independently — in an apartment at The Pines at Davidson — almost until the very end of his life.
As recently as this summer, he was still driving, working on watercolor paintings every day, and swimming three times a week.
Still, the owners of Skydive Central North Carolina in Maiden were a little wary when Carolyn Hart inquired about having her father join her for a jump on June 9.
To reassure them, she sent the owners a video of her father getting up from a seated position, walking, lifting his knees into a march, sitting back down, then raising his knees off the ground to demonstrate the strength in his quads and abdominal muscles. And whatever fears they may have had were allayed when Carolyn and Jack Hart arrived at the airfield the morning of their appointment.
“When I saw him get out of his vehicle,” says Kelvin Wilkerson, co-owner of Skydive Central North Carolina, “just the way he got out of it and walked up to us, seeing his physical mobility, I could tell then that we were good, that I wouldn’t have any issues taking him. ... I mean, he’s in better shape than some 20-year-olds I’ve taken skydiving.”
The only trouble Jack Hart had during the jump? His foot got caught as they were about to exit the plane, and when he wrenched it loose, his left foot came out of his gray size-10-1/2 tennis shoe — sending the sneaker tumbling out of the door, never to be found again.
When an Observer reporter visited Hart’s home a few weeks later, he proudly showed off the remaining shoe, along with the certificate he had received for his successful jump. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” Hart said at the time. “A wonderful experience. I really do recommend it — unless you’re infirm in some way.”
Earlier this month, he celebrated turning a century old with Carolyn, her partner Sandy and another friend on a cruise ship that took them up and down the coast of Maine. (“This year we’re just going off quietly,” Jack Hart said in June of the birthday trip. “I just keep on going and hope I make it another year, but I don’t really think about it. I just think that I’m so glad that I have had each day I’ve had.”)
The mass on his pancreas was discovered last Thursday; he died five days later. But Carolyn Hart is confident her father died happy.
“The last thing he had to eat was frosting off of a cupcake made by my cousin... and he wasn’t talking much anymore, but he went, ‘Mmmm,’” she says. “And the last thing he said was — he looked at me, and with great difficulty, he said: ‘Happily ever after.’”