Rantoul mayor keeps promise, takes plunge

RANTOUL – Rantoul's mayor took a flying leap Monday evening.

Neal Williams, 46, summoned up the courage to sky dive at the Rantoul airport during the World Free Fall Convention.

"It's not something I ever imagined doing in my lifetime," Williams said. "I'm sure some people will wonder if I go with or without a chute, but the Free Fall people assured me I would get a chute."

Williams took part in a tandem jump, strapped to professional tandem jumper Marc Hogue, a former member of the Golden Knights Army parachute team.

At the end of a business after-hours celebration sponsored by the Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce, Williams and Hogue climbed aboard a plane and took a flying leap 14,000 feet above the Rantoul airport before landing on the airport grounds.

"It was the most exhilarating thing I have ever done," Williams said. "I was nervous when I first got on the plane, but my tandem jumper was excellent. As we fell through the air, it was a complete rush because of all the wind.

"Then, when Hogue opened the chute, it was peaceful. I felt like a bird soaring through the sky."

Williams said jumping out of an airplane was one of the last things he imagined himself doing after being elected two years ago. But Williams summoned up the courage after his wife, Sheila, jumped at last year's convention.

"That woman wouldn't quit talking about how much fun it was," Williams said. "She kinda shamed me into it."

"I thought I would lose my stomach like on a roller-coaster ride," Sheila Williams said. "But sky diving is nothing like that at all. ... When you are floating under the parachute canopy, it is extremely peaceful. It is just like floating."

Then, last winter, as convention officials debated whether to return to Rantoul, Neal Williams promised he would take part if the event returned to Champaign County.

"I was apprehensive at first," Neal Williams said. "I think anybody would be, and the jitters really set in later on today. It's just an amazing feeling."

Joining the mayor in the jump were his father, Robert Williams, 65, of Rantoul, and Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joe Bolser.

Robert Williams worked on airplanes for 20 years as a jet engine instructor at Chanute Air Force Base.

"I got to fly a lot, but I never got a chance to jump," he said.

When Robert Williams developed diabetes and had his legs amputated, one in 1998 and the other in 1999, he believed he would never get to sky-dive.

"It had always been my big dream," he said.

Then he found out about a program that allows paraplegics to do tandem sky-dives.

"I found out that Neal was going to jump, so I asked him if he could arrange for us to jump together," Robert Williams said.

Robert Williams said his jump was exhilarating.

"As soon as we landed, I was ready to do it again," he said.

You can reach Tim Mitchell at (217) 351-5366 or via e-mail at tmitchel@news-gazette.com.

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