80-year-old man will celebrate life by jumping from a plane

Skydiving will usher in New Bern resident’s birthday

jshaffer@newsobserver.comNovember 10, 2012 

— For his 80th birthday, Bob Norris will pull a helmet over his white-haired head, strap a pair of goggles over his bespectacled eyes and jump through door of an airplane at 12,000 feet – laughing all the way down.

To his mind, skydiving is the most sensible way for an octogenarian to celebrate another lap around the sun – especially when he’s beaten lung cancer twice.

So look for Norris in the blue and cloudless sky over Louisburg on Sunday afternoon. He’ll be dangling from a parachute, thumbing his nose at the Grim Reaper.

“I want to see everything, and I can see just fine,” he said. “Maybe too good.”

Norris knows he’s not the oldest thrill-seeker to hurl himself from a plane. Former President George H.W. Bush jumped at age 85. And a retired Navy pilot from Maine did it in July – at age 90.

But jumping to spite cancer is intensely personal for Norris, who lost both his wife and only child to the nation’s second-leading cause of death. Skydiving isn’t simply a stunt. So far, Norris has raised roughly $1,000 to benefit the Duke Cancer Institute, which saved him.

“I’ve got six great-grandchildren,” he said. “I’m hoping they won’t know cancer as anything but a word in the dictionary.”

A retired shop teacher from Maryland, Norris and his wife settled in New Bern in 1993. They were driving down U.S. 17 when they stopped at an old swing bridge, waiting for the trestle to close. His wife saw New Bern’s clock tower from a distance and said, “I don’t know where we are, but I want to live here.”

Cancer struck first in 2003, diagnosed at stage 2. Duke had the only PET (positron emission tomography) scan he could find, so he traveled there for surgery and chemotherapy. Three years later, the cancer came back, but surgery cleared it completely.

Dr. Jeffrey Crawford, his oncologist at Duke, credits his survival to good fortune and a zest for living.

“I’m really proud of him,” Crawford said. “To see someone come through that and not have fatigue, not have muscle wasting, is really impressive. He’s setting a very high bar for cancer survivors.”

His wife wasn’t as lucky. Her cancer was far more advanced when caught, and she died five years ago.

In August, lung cancer also claimed his son Tony – just 54.

“It’s such a parasite,” Norris said. “It just makes me mad that I can’t do anything.”

Tony’s wife, Helen, will be on hand when Norris jumps Sunday from Franklin County Airport. She isn’t worried about the jump, but she didn’t want him driving home by himself.

“He’s been talking about it for eight months,” she said. “Tony had talked about doing it, too, but then he thought, ‘If I’m going to do something like that, I’d rather learn to fly a plane.’”

Norris checked with doctors first and got the go-ahead for skydiving. He’s missing about two-thirds of his right lung, and he needs surgery in one of his eyes.

But his heart, having taken life’s hardest punches, beats stronger than ever.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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