The dean who fell to earth
Dr. William Dysinger and his skydiving instructor Jeff Mullens feel the exhilarating rush of a 57-second free fall before Mr. Mullens pulled the ripcord and slowed their descent to earth. “At no time did I ever experience the sensation of falling,” says Dr. Dysinger of his 120-mile per hour drop from an airplane at 14,000 feet over Tennessee.
“If you’re going to get old,” wrote British comedic philosopher P.G. Wodehouse, “you might as well get as old as you can get!”
That’s an excellent philosophy so far as it goes, but Loma Linda University has an octogenarian philosopher who thinks it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“I don’t consider age an excuse for not doing anything you really want to do.”
Those words—coming from an 80-year old world traveler and adventurer of the highest order—exemplify a philosophy of aging not frequently heard in a culture that all too often relegates its elders to bingo parlors and nursing homes.
What we’re trying to say here is that P. William “Bill” Dysinger, MD, MPH, is a man of action. What we’re really trying to say—and you will please forgive us for not just cutting to the chase and blurting this out much sooner—is simply this:
Dr. Dysinger fell out of the sky the other day!
Don’t send flowers; Dr. Dysinger is just fine. And he didn’t fall by accident; he jumped out of a moving airplane—on his own volition, no less!
Here’s how the story shakes down: Following a very active career in both medicine and public health, Dr. Dysinger decided to retire in June of 1992 from his position as senior health advisor for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). It wasn’t that he was tired of traveling the globe; he just wanted to spend more quali
An aerial photographer captured Dr. P. William “Bill” Dysinger looking down at the precise moment his chute opened in the skies over Tennessee on December 30, 2007. Dr. Dysinger had wanted to skydive since he was 18. He finally fulfilled that wish during his 80th year of life.
ty time with his grandkids in Tennessee.
But a guy like Dr. Dysinger can’t just sit on his laurels, so he undertook a new slate of responsibilities and challenges related to his positions as associate dean emeritus for the LLU School of Public Health and professor emeritus for the School of Medicine.
Now don’t be fooled by that word “emeritus.” The title is often bestowed upon a formerly active professional when he retires to a life of “I Love Lucy” reruns and visits to the gerontology clinic. Dr. Dysinger would have none of that.
What he will have is a heaping helping of doing the things he’s always wanted to do.
That list includes lecturing all over the world on a variety of public health topics, chronicling the history of the Seventh-day Adventist health care ministry, leading a bi-coastal existence that jets him back and forth between the office at Loma Linda and the house in Tennessee, planning an upcoming cruise to Alaska with his wife Yvonne, and giving his 14 grandkids and one great-grandson a run for their money.
But there’s more. “I want to go skydiving again,” he confides. “I also want to write a couple more books, and maybe buy a motorcycle.” The next thing he says might come under the heading of that’s pretty obvious: “I believe life is an adventure!”
So how does a guy like Dr. Dysinger relax? By giving his inner teenager free reign to do something wild
Dr. Dysinger and his very relieved wife, Yvonne, celebrate the 80-year-old adventurer’s first skydive. He plans to buy a motorcycle, cruise to Alaska, write a couple more books, and skydive once more in the near future.
and daring. On December 30, 2007, a full seven months after his 80th birthday, Dr. Dysinger joined his son-in-law, Craig Edwards, for a walk in the clouds.
“Craig wanted to go skydiving,” Dr. Dysinger says, “and I decided to do it with him. So we did our first jump on the same day from the same airplane.”
Was skydiving something he’d wanted to do for a long time? “Oh, yes, yes,” he insists. “I started thinking about jumping out of a plane when I was young. I started flight training when I was 18. I was 19 when I got my pilot’s license.”
Besides being peripatetic—a word that can mean, among other things, a person who doesn’t like to sit still very long—Dr. Dysinger can also be very persuasive. Witness, for example, the eloquent oratorical method he employed at the age of 18 to persuade a set of reluctant parents to pay for flying lessons.
“I said I wanted them to either buy me a motorcycle,” he remembers, “or pay the bill for me to learn to fly.” His parents—who apparently realized that planes don’t fall out of the sky so often as motorcycles crash to the ground—sent their son packing to flight school.
They wouldn’t let him pack a chute, however. Which might explain why now, at the age of 80, Dr. Dysinger felt he still had some unfinished business to do that involved jumping into thin air.
Dr. Dysinger preaches what he practices. “Life was meant to be an adventure!” he declares. “I tell people my age to get out there and live it up! I don’t consider age an excuse for not doing anything you really want to do.”
To say that Dr. Dysinger has already accomplished a lot in his first 80 years might be putting it mildly. After graduating from the LLU School of Medicine in 1955, the young doctor went to Harvard and collected a master of public health degree in 1962.
Following that, he embarked on a globe-spanning career that included stints as the country director for ADRA in Yemen—where he secured several million dollars worth of public health grants to help women in that impoverished nation improve their lives, and to prevent childhood deaths—and a host of other special projects for ADRA and Loma Linda University in places like Mongolia, Nepal, Cambodia, and some 60 other countries of the world.
Perhaps it’s safe to say that when he’s not jumping out of airplanes, Dr. Dysinger is probably touching down on the tarmac at some airport or another somewhere in the world as an international man on a perpetual mission.
Just what that mission is—other than “go everywhere, do everything”—becomes a little bit clearer when you read his published materials. In a flier designed to promote Health to the People, a book Dr. Dysinger wrote with the help of Dorothy Minchin-Comm, he extols the virtues of exercise, drinking water, and eating the staples of a healthy vegetarian diet—nuts, fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. But is the Adventist health message the sole motivation that drives this dynamo of a man to push himself to excel?
To find out, we asked a couple people who ought to know: Dr. Dysinger’s son, Wayne Dysinger, MD, and daughter, Janelle Edwards. Wayne works as chair of the department of preventive medicine at the LLU School of Medicine and as a physician at the University’s Center for Health Promotion. Janelle, on the other hand, basically never stops working as the mother of “Mom’s six little bears,” as she calls her six children. One of them is Savannah Edwards, the remarkable 11-year old who has now raised more than $4,000 to benefit childhood cancer victims at LLU Children’s Hospital.
Both Wayne and Janelle underscored the extraordinary passion their father has for serving others. Wayne relates that drive to Dr. Dysinger’s interest in skydiving. “I think the way it fits in with skydiving,” Wayne conjectures, “is that he’s always been interested in exploring and finding creative ways to get through life.”
Wayne concedes, however, that the sources of Dr. Dysinger’s inner drive are somewhat of a mystery. “I don’t really know what motivates him. He’s driven to solve the root problems, and he’s not afraid to do whatever it takes to get to those core issues.”
Janelle says that her father shuns attention. “He’s lived his life in service for others.
He’s not the type of person who likes to get a lot of recognition, but absolutely wherever I go with him, everybody knows him. Even overseas. He thinks it’s no big deal, but I say, ‘Dad, it is a big deal!’ He has no idea of the impact he has on others.”
Janelle concludes with the observation that “I really look up to my dad more than anyone else. He’s a great role model for my kids. Helping people is what’s in his heart.”
All of which leaves us with one final question for Dr. Dysinger. “If you had your life to live over, what would you do differently?”
“Well, I have thought about that and there are very few changes I would make,” he shares. “However, instead of majoring in science or my undergraduate degree, I’d major in something like history or one of the social sciences. I would still become a physician, but I think a history major would prepare me as well as my chemistry major for a medical career. I would just like to understand people in their cultures around the world better. I find it fascinating to become aware of the histories of different people and their culture groups. I’ve been a history buff from day one.”
In reviewing the history of the skydiving incident in last December, we learn that the dive was a combination birthday and Christmas present from daughter Janelle, son-in-law Craig and all six little bears. The first obstacle the Edwards’ family faced was in getting Yvonne to agree to it. She wasn’t too keen on letting her man fall out of the sky, “but once his cardiologist told Mom that it was O.K. for Dad to do this, she finally said yes,” Janelle remembers.
What Dr. Dysinger recalls is that he wasn’t sure quite what to expect. But after half an hour of ground school, and signing scores of liability waivers, he was ready to go. So he strapped on his tandem chute—“actually, it was a parasail,” he corrects—climbed aboard the plane and flew, with jumping instructor Jeff Mullens firmly attached at all times, to the dizzying height of 14,000 feet. After that, he literally leaped from the plane.
Was it a rush? “Actually,” he says, “it was a very calm descent to the ground. At no point did I ever experience the sensation of falling. But it was cold up there with the wind blowing in your face at 120 miles per hour. I was bareheaded. If I were to do it again, I’d wear something on my head.”
The photographs of his dive depict a free-falling Dr. Dysinger, skin rippling from the force of the wind, floating to earth beneath his instructor. “They make you take seven flights before you’re allowed to go by yourself,” he observes. “I think one more flight will be enough for me.”
He goes on to explain that he incurred repeated corrections from his instructor. “To maintain your equilibrium, you’re supposed to arch your back to hold your feet and head up and your arms out. But I kept looking down, so the instructor kept pulling my head up.
“We free-fell for 57 seconds before my instructor pulled the ripcord,” he continues. “I didn’t feel a strong jerk when he pulled it. All the parachutes today are parasails with wings. The photographer took a picture of me as the sails opened. It was all very gentle from then on.”
Once back on Terra Firma, Dr. Dysinger hugged Yvonne, shook hands all around, then headed down the road to play with his grandkids.
When you’re 80 years young and see life as a glorious adventure, not even the sky’s any kind of a limit.
By James Ponder