Skydiver from Northeastern Pennsylvania dies at 85
DRUMS (AP) — Don S. Kellner didn’t want to be remembered for the cancer that took his life on July 22.
The 85-year-old from Drums wanted people instead to focus on the time he spent living.
One of the most renowned parts of his life involves the number 46,355, which earned him a Guinness World Record. That’s how many sport parachute jumps he had, more than anyone in the world.
Those freefalls slowed by the fibers of a parachute were life-changing for the people Kellner taught at his business — Above the Poconos Skydivers — and for himself, said his wife of 38 years, Darlene (DiLibero) Kellner.
Don Kellner jumped out of perfectly good aircrafts for fun for 60 years — about 772 jumps per year. He spent 232 hours, 40 minutes and 36 seconds of his life in free fall — the time spent falling before a parachute deploys, his widow explained.
Many of those leaps were taken in the skies above the Hazleton area, a place he was proud to call home.
Before retirement, Kellner would jump after work with members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, where he served as construction superintendent, assisting with the building of the Frackville prison and Berwick Nuclear Power Plant.
An Air Force veteran who served during the Korean War, Kellner also served as part of the Airborne Radar, monitoring the United States Air Defense Identification Zone from attack of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Darlene said he acted as a satellite, detecting Soviets from the skies before satellites were used in the military. He was the crew chief, responsible for getting everyone off the plane and into the sky during an emergency.
Interestingly, during his time of military service, he never jumped. It wasn’t until after he left the military that he actually pulled the strings of a parachute. It became his passion.
Married in the sky
Kellner literally dove into the community event, Valley Day, in 1961. People were so impressed by his aerial feat that they passed a hat and collected $100.
“He said I am going to do this for the rest of my life. And, he did,” Darlene said. It wasn’t long after that he opened his business.
His 1,000th jump came while he worked on the set of “The Molly Maguires” movie, a 1970 American historical drama filmed in Eckley where Kellner provided pyrotechnics, worked as an extra and helped build the set. He landed at the filming site with the assistant director, also a skydiving enthusiast.
He parachuted from a World War II B-24 Liberator in May 1990, his 13,000th jump, and he also married Darlene that year in a freefall ceremony.
By the time he reached his 15,000th jump in 1991, jumping out of a colorful hot air balloon, he was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records. Darlene snapped a picture of the moment after jumping out ahead of him and the photograph was used in the children’s version of the Guinness Book, said Darlene.
He took his 45,000th jump in April 2019 in Hazleton.
Don tested parachute equipment and was always looking for ways to improve the safety of the sport, investing in technology that kept people at his business safe. Darlene said he was a pioneer who developed better and safer ways of teaching and people took notice, traveling to the Hazleton area from all over the world to learn from him.
Darlene recalled just how reassuring and honest he was with students. In 1982 she was one of them. Scared to make her second jump she tearfully told Kellner, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Yes, you can,” he said before giving her a kiss. They were together ever since.
He liked helping people, Darlene said. Through his business he helped people overcome their fear and realize true freedom. “If they can overcome that fear what more can they overcome,” Darlene questioned.
“He changed lives. He saw a way to allow people to live their best lives. It wasn’t about the jump, it was about changing lives,” she said.
Kellner was also known for working with his friend, David Price, to create a harness used to rescued two men buried underground during the Sheppton Mine collapse in 1963. He also rescued stranded parachuters, including a girl who was stuck on an icy Lake Irene in Hazle Twp. but was lifted to safety by Kellner dangling in a harness from a helicopter.
But he was about more than jumps and parachutes. The Conyngham native had a family: He was father to Barbara Kellner and Tammy D’Andrea, both of Drums, and had three grandchildren.
Last jump was May 1
May 1 was his last day of jumping. He made eight that day, and the last was with Darlene. Not long afterward, he learned that the tremendous back pain he was experiencing was cancer.
While being treated at Geisinger in Danville earlier this month, he had an especially empathetic nursing assistant who took care of him, Darlene said. She thanked the nurse by offering him a skydive about a month before Don died.
He took up the offer and, coincidentally, the dive took place the day after Don passed.
Darlene accompanied the nursing assistant to take video. They were greeted by a strikingly picturesque sight — the vibrant rays of the sun piercing through the fluffy clouds. It was Don saying thank you and that he’s OK, his widow said.
“I’ve never seen the sky as beautiful as that,” she said.