Addison farmer takes big plunge in celebration of life

ADDISON — Lee and Pat Kayhart have each slung a bucket or two during their 40 years of dairying at their farm in West Addison.
Now the couple is poised to retire, selling their business interests to their sons — but they are not done with buckets. Lee Kayhart has started crossing off items on his “bucket list,” an ambitious series of accomplishments he’d like to cross off before he is no longer able. Kayhart, 61, and a couple of his buddies recently crossed off a big one, in the form of a parachute jump not five miles from the Kayharts’ farm.
It was an even more impressive feat, considering Kayhart lost his arms around 25 years ago in a farming accident. Next on his list? A rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
It all started with a “deal” Kayhart made with one of his childhood pals, Denny Stedenfeld, who currently lives in Pennsylvania. The friends had been talking about the 2007 film “The Bucket List,” in which the two terminally ill men (played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) escape from a cancer ward with a to-do list to fulfill before they die.
Now in their 60s, Kayhart and Stedenfeld are fortunately only looking at seniority and not a deadly disease. But they are sketching out a list of things they’d like to do before Father Time and gravity take hold.
“What I said to Denny is, ‘Would you go through (the Grand Canyon) with me to achieve one of my bucket list items?’” Kayhart recalled. “And he said, ‘Sure, but if I do that, you’ve got to help me with mine.’”
Little did Kayhart know that the first item on his buddy’s bucket list was jumping out of an airplane.
“Skydiving wouldn’t have approached being on my radar in a million years,” Kayhart confessed.
“It’s something I’d always wanted to do in my life,” Stedenfeld said in a recent phone interview.
As luck would have it, Denny Stedenfeld and another childhood pal — Paul Crowther — were traveling through New England in late August and were happy to take a detour to Addison and Vermont Skydiving Adventures to make a 11,000-foot leap of faith on Friday, Aug. 28.
It’s a feat that Kayhart had observed many times before — albeit with his feet firmly planted on the ground.
“We have farmed some of the ground right next to (Vermont Skydiving Adventures),” Kayhart said. “I had a jumper one time land not too far in front of me. And I have known the owner of the business for better than 10 years, and I have always thought, ‘Boy, that would be neat to do.’ I had witnessed this repeatedly.”
But the friends realized it would be far a different story to actually don the gear and try it themselves.
“It was a super couple of days before (the jump), kidding about whether we were going to do it,” Stedenfeld said.
The friends got to Skydiving Adventures a little early on the big day in order to get some important pointers on their first plunge.
“They tell you what’s going to happen, and then you go for a 20-minute airplane ride to get to 11,000 feet,” Kayhart said.
As new jumpers, both Kayhart and Stedenfeld signed up to jump in tandem — that is, they each were going to have an experienced skydiver strapped to their back to pull the chord, lead them in some basic aerial maneuvers and made sure they landed safely on the ground.
After digesting their instructions, the pals boarded the plane with their co-divers, giddy about the their imminent free-fall. But their initial exhilaration and anticipation was somewhat tempered by the starkness of the celestial precipice that unfolded before them when the airplane door opened.
“Sheer terror,” Kayhart said with a chuckle, recalling the wind chugging through the airplane cabin and the sight of the suddenly tiny patchwork of agricultural fields that he had worked for so many years.
“I though to myself, ‘What possessed me to think this was going to be a good idea?’” Kayhart said.
But there was no doubt that Kayhart was going to make the jump.
“There is that camaraderie, that promise that you made to a friend — and you’re gonna do it,” Kayhart said.
And do it they did.
Kayhart recalled edging to the exit door, gratefully hitched to the hip to his guardian-angel instructor.
Before he knew it, he had taken that last step off the plane — and it was a doozie.
“It’s the neatest thing; it’s human flight, you feel like you’re floating through the air,” Kayhart said.
It was an otherworldly sensation that Kayhart would experience for around 45-60 seconds, until he, Stedenfeld and their co-tandem jumpers had descended to around 5,000 feet. With a sudden jerk of a chord, their increasing velocity was arrested as their chutes opened.
“You feel like you’re being sucked back up (into the sky),” Kayhart said of the sensation of the chute opening. “You are slowing down from going 130 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour.”
The weekend daredevils then gently floated to their landing in a field.
Kayhart was indeed back home on terra firma, though his and Stedenfeld’s memories of their short stints as birds will last for a lifetime. If they need any reminders, they can simply consult the DVD or the still pictures immortalizing their bucket list accomplishment.
“Having now done it, it’s got to be one of the top five thrills of my life,” Kayhart said of the jump.
“It was a high that I have never had before,” Stedenfeld said. “I was happy it went as well as it did.”
He was particularly pleased to see his longtime friend make it through with flying colors. It proved once again that Kayhart has not let the absence of arms prevent him from figuratively spreading his wings to savor life’s challenges.
“It has been a great inspiration for me to be around him, just to know what he’s been through,” Stedenfeld said.
Just another day for Kayhart, who long ago vowed not to let any physical obstacles inhibit his lifestyle.
“When I was laying in the hospital, I had several thoughts that went through my mind: ‘How was I going to drive a tractor? How was I going to run a chainsaw? And I didn’t want people to think of me as disabled,’” Kayhart recalled.
A quarter-century later, Kayhart has adapted and shown he can keep up with anyone. He functions admirably around the farm and in everyday life with one prosthetic arm.
“I have driven a tractor; I gave up the chainsaw; and a couple of years ago my neighbor was talking about disabled people … and he said to me, ‘Lee, I don’t even think of you as being disabled.’”
Both men said without hesitation that they would jump again.
“I couldn’t get to sleep (the night after the jump), I was so excited,” Kayhart said. “It was probably the adrenaline still surging through my veins.”
It’s a sensation the two plan to revisit in the near future, with another heaping helping from the bucket list that will come in the form of a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. No official date has been set, but Stedenfeld pledged to keep his word and follow through. Now in their early 60s, the two friends know that they should seize the moment sooner, rather than later. Pat and Lee Kayhart have been spending some of the winter months in Arizona, and are expecting to retire from farming this year, so the stars may be aligning for another bucket list adventure.
Pat Kayhart suspects her husband’s bucket list will be pretty full in retirement.
“Never enough,” she said of her husband’s motto.

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