For Littleton resident, "living" means jumping out of a plane at 91


August 19, 2011
LITTLETON – Gwen Howe says she has "enjoyed living," so you may wonder why the 91-year-old recently jumped out of a plane above Lebanon, Maine.

Actually, it's simple. For Howe, living isn't just existing – it's staying busy, dreaming up adventures and making them happen. She's traveled the world from Sweden to New Zealand, taken hand-gliding and hot-air balloon rides, and now she can add skydiving to the list.

The mother of three, grandmother of six, great-grandmother of 13 and great-great grandmother of five said that she had read about the sport over the years and just wanted to try it out. She also joked that she didn't want her two sons, who were paratroopers at one time, to have done anything she hadn't.

Luckily, Skydive New England in Lebanon was is a few hours away from Littleton. So on a sunny Tuesday in August, her children – who were in New England for the family's 51st reunion – watched their matriarch do what many people would never dream of doing, regardless of age.

Strapped to the front of her tandem instructor, Matt Becker, Howe was the first in a group to leap out of the Super Otter at about 13,500 feet above the earth. She said the enormity of what she was doing hit her as they positioned themselves in the open doorway and she looked down at the patchwork land below her. Then they jumped and started falling, and Howe said she was intently focused on everything Matt was telling her to do.

"Exhilarating" was the word Howe used to describe the skydiving, then she took it back because it wasn't quite right. It's possibile that a word may not exist to describe the sensation of freefalling toward the ground at 120 miles per hour.

Howe said Becker, who grew up in Sugar Hill and lives in Franconia during the sport's off-season, deserves a lot of praise for making the experience go so smoothly.

"He really was special," she said, "he really made the difference."

Still, skydiving at her age isn't something that she sees as being unique or even newsworthy. What else should she be doing?

She was born Feb. 4, 1920 in Randolph, Vt. – "delivered by an angel," as she likes to say, because the doctor's last name was Angell. The eldest of seven, Howe grew up around Middlebury, Vt., but her father, Vaughn Whitney, liked to move around a bit. He was a farmer, and her mother, Gladys, was a homemaker.

She remembers the flood of 1927, one of Vermont's worst disasters that killed more than 80 people and washed out more than 1,200 bridges. Their home was up on a hill, but her father had to use a rowboat to get to the barn where the cows were being kept in the haymow.

And it's the memory of the wandering men that stands out to her the most from the Great Depression. Howe's father ran the town farm, so her family fared well food-wise, but they would also feed any traveler who stopped by. She said men, who didn't want to be a burden on their families, would walk along a route of known shelter and food, so every now and then she'd recognize one of their faces. They'd work a job for Howe's father if he had one, but that wasn't too often. After the town farm, the jail in the next town up would give them a night's rest and a meal.

Howe was a schoolteacher from the age of 18 in Guildhall, Vt., until she retired in 1983 at a school in the neighboring town of Lunenburg, Vt., – except for a few years when she first married in 1940 and had her children, because it wasn't proper at that time for married women to be schoolteachers, she says.

She moved to Littleton from Vermont in the early 1970s and has worked at the library for years: full-time, part-time and now just as a volunteer after the town's spring budget cuts also affected the library. She said it was the first time she had left a job she didn't want to leave.

She's still has a to-do list of adventures: a trip to Mongolia is a must, and she'd like to skydive again so she can be more relaxed the second time and really soak up the sensation of falling.

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