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George H.W. Bush turns 90, goes skydiving

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Former President George H.W. Bush celebrated his 90th birthday on Thursday by making a tandem parachute jump near his summer home in coastal Maine, delivering on a vow he made five years ago even though he can no longer use his legs.

The nation’s 41st president jumped from a helicopter at about 6,000 feet harnessed to Sgt. 1st Class Mike Elliott, a retired member of the Golden Knights, the Army’s parachute team. Elliott guided Bush to a gentle landing five years ago.

“That’s what he wanted for his 90th birthday and that’s what he got,” Elliott said. “It’s a very good feeling to be involved and be able to turn back time. He’s probably feeling younger now than ever.”

The helicopter picked up Bush outside his Kennebunkport home, known as Walker’s Point. His family transported him from his wheelchair to the chopper, then sang “Happy Birthday” before it took off.

Bush later floated to the ground using a red, white and blue parachute and landed near St. Ann’s Church, where friends and family had gathered, out of the sight of reporters. Elliott said Bush’s foot got tangled up underneath him during the landing, causing him to tumble forward onto the ground. A spokesman later said the former president was feeling “fine.”

“He had a big smile for the crowd. You could tell he was exhilarated,” said Diana Untermeyer, a family friend from Houston. “He’s an amazing man. This is just another sign of that. I think that like most of America, our family loves him to pieces. It was just a real thrill to do this again.”

Witnesses said Bush was greeted with a kiss from his wife, Barbara, and a hug from his son George. The family left the landing zone without talking to reporters.

Hundreds of people had gathered along rocks near the church to get a glimpse of the jump.

“He has a lot of courage. We need more like him,” said David Morris, 79, of Melrose, Massachusetts.

“I think it’s wonderful. I hope I can jump out of a plane at 90,” said Carol Schierl, 75, of Green Bay, Wisconsin,

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The jump was kept secret until Thursday morning partly to give Bush himself the option of bagging it.

Spokesman Jim McGrath said the former president likes both a surprise and an adrenaline rush.

“It’s vintage George Bush,” McGrath said. “It’s that passion for life. It’s wanting to set a goal, wanting to achieve it. I’m sure part of it is sending a message to others that even in your retirement years you can still find challenges.”

The first time Bush jumped from an airplane was when his plane was shot down in World War II over the Pacific. Later, he decided to jump from a plane of his own accord and marked his 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays by skydiving. Thursday marked his eight jump.

Other birthday festivities included a private dinner with more than 200 relatives and friends, including some from his White House days: press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, White House counsel Boyden Gray and political director Ron Kaufman, McGrath said. His children, including former President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will be there, McGrath said.

Kennebunkport is a special place for the president. As a boy, he visited the family home at Walker’s Point every summer, except during World War II. The retreat was later dubbed his “summer White House.”

During his presidential years, Bush was known for jogging, tennis and fast-paced golf, but he now uses a wheelchair or scooter because of a form of parkinsonism that has robbed him of use of his legs. He signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Bush occupies the fifth spot on the list of longest-lived U.S. presidents, and is within a few months of overtaking Herbert Hoover:

1. Gerald Ford; 93 years, 165 days; died Dec. 26, 2006.

2. Ronald Reagan; 93 years, 120 days; died June 5, 2004.

3. John Adams; 90 years, 247 days; died July 4, 1826.

4. Herbert Hoover; 90 years, 71 days; died Oct. 20, 1964.

5. George H.W. Bush; 90 years, 0 days.

6. Jimmy Carter; 89 years, 254 days.

7. Harry Truman; 88 years, 232 days; died Dec 26, 1972.

8. James Madison; 85 years, 104 days; died June 28, 1836.

9. Thomas Jefferson; 83 years, 82 days; died July 4, 1826.

10. Richard Nixon; 81 years, 103 days; died April 22, 1994.

So, in 90 years, what have we learned about Bush?

He’s compassionate, especially where children are concerned. He once shaved his head to show his support for a little boy with cancer:

He is a sock man, and admits he doesn’t know much about ‘The Beiber’:

He’s not a very good bowler:

And the food in Japan doesn’t necessarily agree with him:

ASSOCIATED PRESS