Jumping out of a plane at age 80 was no sweat for fearless thrill seeker Wanda Marsh, now 83 and a member of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, St. Francis.
Marsh’s “daredevil” experiences, as she calls them, started when she was on vacation 13 years ago in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her grandchildren were parasailing and she said to her now deceased husband, Bob, “That looks like fun. I think I want to do it.” He replied, “If you want to go, then go!”
At age 70, Marsh was pulled behind the boat high into the air over the water with her grandson, Alex, who was 11 at the time. Even though Marsh doesn’t know how to swim, she had no fear. She enjoyed sharing the view and the experience with her grandson, she recalled during a recent interview with the Catholic Herald.
Marsh grew up in southern Illinois on a farm in Stonefort, the second youngest of nine children raised in a Baptist family. She graduated high school in 1950 and moved to Milwaukee to live with her older brother, who had moved north to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States.
She married into her brother’s wife’s family; brother and sister were married to sister and brother.
Wanda and Robert Marsh were married Feb. 20, 1954 in Milwaukee at St. Gerard Church, which has since closed. At the same time, she converted to Catholicism, her husband’s religion.
Marsh’s parents frowned upon the conversion to Catholicism, she said, however once they grew to know and love her husband, she said they warmed up to the idea. Wanda and Bob settled in Bay View and raised three children.
She lives in Oak Creek and has seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren and is active at her parish where she serves as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and in other volunteer roles.
In 2012, Marsh watched her grandson, Andrew Bystrek of Franklin, skydive in Sturtevant. The seed was planted for her next venture. The octogenarian went on the Internet and bought herself a skydiving ticket for the following year.
In the airplane on the day of the jump, along with Bystrek and his girlfriend, Marsh was ready to jump tandem with her, as she described, “good-looking instructor named Jordan.”
The instructor prepared her for the landing, “put your feet straight out and hold your arms across the front of your body.”
As she stepped out of the airplane at 1,450 feet, she thought to herself, “Oh, are you crazy or what?”
The tandem pair was in free fall along with the other skydivers for 800 feet. They fell through a cloud that she described as feeling damp and dim. They emerged and the parachute popped open and they floated the rest of the way to the ground, landing in a field right on target. The landing felt like a feather, Marsh said.
Immediately after, Marsh signed up for another jump, one year later.
At age 81, in 2014, she skydived for an even more memorable time. During the jump of 11 skydivers in two airplanes, including family and friends, Bystrek proposed to his girlfriend and she accepted. Marsh was so pleased to be part of the special occasion for her grandson.
She said skydiving was better the second time because there were no clouds and one could see 360 degrees around with a beautiful view for miles. Following the jump, their extended family members joined them at the landing field for food and an engagement celebration.
“It was a pretty awesome to be able to share that experience with her,” said Bystrek. “Skydiving was quite an adventure and all the family members came to watch.”
He described his grandmother fondly, calling her “kind, strong-willed and courageous.”
While many people are fearful of skydiving, Marsh said she finds strength in her faith to pursue adventures she enjoys.
“She knows that God is watching over her and protecting her. She knows she will be OK,” Bystrek explained.
Marsh already has her sights on her next thrill — ziplining. This June she will be in southern Illinois for a family reunion and has picked out a zipline course. She hopes some of her relatives will join her. She is always up for “an adventure, something that is different and daring,” she said.
Each morning, Marsh wakes up and thanks God for watching over her and her family.
“If God didn’t take care of me and keep me in the shape I am in, I couldn’t do all of these things,” she said, adding she believes that God and her husband, Bob, are with her at all times.
Marsh embraces life and the gifts of her family and faith, noting that as long as she is healthy, she will continue to find extraordinary ways to live life to the fullest.