John Keith knows how to stay busy. The 75- year-old man has completed more than 1,000 skydiving tandem jumps since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and testicular cancer 15 years ago. It’s only the latest achievement in a life dedicated to nonstop activity.
Keith was born in Wyandotte, MI in 1941. His father soon moved the family to north Florida to escape a polio outbreak.
“It worked!” Keith said. “I didn’t get polio.”
The family “hacked out a farm” in the middle of a pine forest. Keith tended the animals. He recalled a time when he disturbed a hornets’ nest and almost died from multiple stings from the insects. That experience and others like it helped him develop immunities that later prove instrumental in prolonging his longevity. He was the go-to person when hurricane season arrived and his neighbors needed to rid their shutters of wasp nests. “I was exposed to everything at the right time,” he said.
“I have no allergies.”
The family sold the farm, opened another, took a year off and then moved to Pace, where Keith attended Milton High School. After graduating, he went to the University of Florida, but didn’t like the atmosphere and relocated, enrolling at Pensacola Junior College.
“From there, I wanted to go to a place where I could party, so I went to the University of Miami,” he said.
He graduated from UM with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics.
“I took that route because I didn’t like writing term papers,” he said. “I could do 10 problems and then go party.”
In 1966, a UM acquaintance showed Keith a computer. He took to it immediately. He was told that Miami-Dade College was developing a computer system and jumped at the chance to become involved.
“I over there and, sure enough, we’re taking programming classes in the daytime and writing software for the college at night.”
Three months later, the school hired him to help construct their new computer system. It was the beginning of a 43-year career at MDC as manager of system programming.
“When I started you could actually see memory; you could see the little wires running through it,” he said. “It’s beyond my belief that they can get terabytes into the size they can today.”
He married his first wife and they had a son and daughter. However, their relationship grew rocky.
“She wanted to do some things and I wanted to do other things,” he said.
They divorced and, until he was 30, he took up surfing in Florida and Hawaii. At 30, he grew tired of surfing and bought a sailboat, drifting across the ocean for the following decade.
“I learned all about the drug trade — not to pick up things floating in Biscayne Bay,” he said.
From 40 to 60, self-contained bicycle touring became his passion. He’s been across the country and back on three separate occasions.
But at 60, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and testicular cancer.
“Now, the fight starts for five years,” he said.
He underwent an orchiectomy — the male version of a hysterectomy. While many men would mourn this loss, Keith speaks only of its benefits.
“Three positive things came out of the cancer,” he said. “One, wily girls can’t influence me anymore. Two, the straps from that skydiving harness don’t bother me. And three, I lost 100 pounds weight — 230 to 130. It took a load off my heart and I now keep my weight to around 160.”
After surgery, he returned to an earlier passion for skydiving. Although he had jumped in the ‘60s and ‘80s, he decided to see his kids through college before doing it again, especially after witnessing six people fall to death in 18 months. Skydiving has since become considerably safer.
“They got the bugs out of the equipment — the transitions and squares are worked out — and Fred Whitsitt is running the place,” he said.
“We haven’t lost anybody down here in 16 years since Fred took it over.” Because of his Parkinson’s, Keith is no longer permitted to parachute solo, but that hasn’t deterred him. He has completed more than 1,000 tandem jumps, harnessed to another skydiver. He says freefalling through the air is the only time when he doesn’t feel pain from his medical condition.
“For me, jumping out of a plane isn’t any harder than walking out the door of a house,” he said. “Parkinson’s tends to pull you over and gives you back problems. When jumping, I’m in a reverse arch. Anytime I want to get my back to stop hurting, I just arch and it takes pressure off. I’ve been to doctors, had injections and everything else you can think of. They can’t figure it out.”
Keith lives 16 miles away from Skydive Miami, located inside Homestead General Aviation Airport. He visits the airfield two or three times a week and he trains two hours a day on his bicycle and in his weight room. In between that rigid workout regimen and pursing his next thousand dives, he spends time with his wife, Sylvia Leon, and tries his best to positively impact those around him.
“My whole life, I’ve been at it,” he said. “My dad was 53 when I was born — the ninth member of a 15-member family. By the time I was 11, I went to funerals the way that other kids go to the movies. I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink or drive fast. I didn’t have many friends, but I didn’t care. I was into doing things. I can honestly say I’ve done everything I want to do, bought everything I want to buy, my two kids make more money than I do, I don’t owe anybody anything, nor do I have anything to apologize for. So, I’m free and clear.”