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At 91, she'd already seen a lot. Then she jumped out of a plane

Dorothy Stewart skydiving for her 91st birthday

Dorothy Stewart’s mother spent her whole life worrying that her youngest child wouldn’t live to see adulthood. At just six months old, Dorothy and her twin brother, Donald, contracted whooping cough. Donald succumbed, Dorothy survived. But a doctor told Dorothy’s mother that the little girl would die before her 10th birthday, her heart having been irreparably damaged by the disease.

Dorothy Stewart poses near a body of water
Dorothy Stewart was born and raised in Bloomington.

But Stewart, who was born and raised in Bloomington, would spend her lifetime defying expectations. Ninety-one years later, she would stand 15,000 feet above the ground, have a brief word with God, and plunge into the abyss.

Stewart said that skydiving was never on her bucket list, but a few years ago she watched on television as President George H.W. Bush did it at age 90. And if he could do it, Stewart thought, so could she.

And she did. Not once, but twice; the most recent jump taken earlier this month in her adopted home of South Carolina in honor of her 91st birthday. Only this time, Stewart had a different president in mind.

“They say that the present president is too old for this, too old for that,” Stewart said of President Joe Biden. “Well, I’m going to leap in honor of him to leap into the next term.”

People tend to dismiss the value of experience, Steward said. “And President Biden has 40 years of experience under his belt,” she said, calling Biden “the best we had” during the 2020 election.

But no president, Stewart said, ascends to the office “without having some smarts,” and she laments the lack of civility around modern political discourse.

“I actually come from the time of Adlai Stevenson and those gentlemen who were gentlemen. It didn’t matter what party they were in,” Stewart said. “It’s very different now.”

Of course, it wasn’t just gentlemen who shaped Stewart’s political worldview. She recalls canvassing with her aunt who was a committeeperson in Chicago’s third ward, and working under the first woman to become Chicago’s mayor, Jane Byrne. Stewart then went on to blaze her own trails, becoming the first Black woman to serve as director of public housing in Peoria. She retired to South Carolina after a decades-long career in public service.

Now she serves as inspiration to her 8-year-old god-granddaughter, O’Nalia, who people call Stewart’s “mini-me.” Stewart said she’s encouraged O’Nalia to follow in her footsteps and try skydiving someday. Stewart’s tried convincing her children as well, but they have said no thanks to the idea of jumping out a plane.

Stewart has found that kind of response to be pretty common. “People, you know, they tell me how they admire me but I’m sure under their breath they’re saying that’s a crazy old lady,” she said.

“And that’s OK with me.”

Sarah Nardi is a correspondent at WGLT. She rejoined the station in 2024.