UPDATED: Funeral director dies in parachute accident
CHAMPAIGN — A Champaign funeral home operator with an appetite for adventure and a larger-than-life personality died Tuesday during a parachute jump in Oklahoma, according to authorities in that state.
Jim Yost, who operated Owens Funeral Home in Champaign and Blair-Owens Funeral Home in Mahomet, was taking part in the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team’s semi-annual jump school near Frederick, Okla.
Mr. Yost, 69, died of blunt force injuries due to “a fall from height with a malfunctioning parachute,” according to Amy Elliott, chief administrative officer for the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. She termed the death an accident.
Tillman County (Okla.) Sheriff Bobby Whittington said the fatality occurred about 8:15 p.m. west of the Frederick Regional Airport.
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“He exited the aircraft, and there was a malfunction of the chute,” Whittington said. “Witnesses said he experienced a Mae West-type malfunction, where the stout line goes over ... the canopy, so instead of one lobe, you have two lobes. He deployed the reserve parachute and then became limp. No one saw him move any more.”
Arrangements are pending at Owens Funeral Home, 101 N. Elm St., C.
Mr. Yost was known widely for his outsized adventures, including ultra-marathons, long-distance bike rides in the U.S. and Europe, parachute jumps on both sides of the Atlantic and his restoration of sports cars.
“He did stuff a lot of people don’t even try,” said Van Hartman, who occasionally joined Mr. Yost on long-distance runs and was regaled with his stories.
Jed Bunyan, one of the owners of Body N’ Sole Sports in Savoy, called Mr. Yost “the greatest runner I’ve ever known.”
“He ran a 24-hour race and posted one of the fastest times in the world in those years,” he said. Bunyan said Mr. Yost ran about 140 miles over those 24 hours, which was “one of the longest distances run at that time.”
“He was a great storyteller,” Bunyan added. “We would train for marathons together, and on a long training run, he would tell stories that lasted for most of the three-hour runs.”
Mike Lindemann, a co-owner of Body N’ Sole Sports, said Mr. Yost’s stories “made our runs a lot easier.”
“A lot of them were World War II stories,” Lindemann said. “He knew everything about every war there was.”
Mr. Yost was also a proponent of the Hood to Coast 195-mile relay race in Oregon.
“I don’t know how much money he spent on phone calls for that race,” Lindemann said. “He called people he didn’t even know, and before he got off the phone, they were all friends with him. That’s the kind of personality he had.”
In February of this year, Mr. Yost was chosen as the focus of a front-page Wall Street Journal story about the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team’s jump school. It’s a nine-day training program modeled after that used by paratroopers during the war.
In 2004, Mr. Yost and his son, Jay, went to Normandy to attend a 60th-anniversary commemoration of D-Day — and took with them a World War II-era jeep that had been restored.
According to a News-Gazette story from that year, Mr. Yost, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, said he had a lifelong interest in World War II and had frequently visited D-Day battlefields and cemeteries.
“When I get on Omaha Beach or in Sainte Mere Eglise, I get emotional,” Mr. Yost told staff writer Greg Kline. “It’s hallowed ground.”
Since then, Mr. Yost made several more trips to Normandy, including a visit this year.
Hartman said Mr. Yost once told him of parachuting from a plane over Normandy and having control issues in the landing. According to Hartman, Mr. Yost first thought he was going to hit a tree, but ended up landing on a car.
“He said he was surprised with how nice the French were,” Hartman said. “The guy who owned the car said it was no problem. He was really nice about it, even though he (Mr. Yost) left a dent and cracked the guy’s windshield.”
Gary Matthews of Mahomet said he got to know Mr. Yost through his “wonderful support of the Mahomet Area Youth Club.” Matthews became a friend and traveled with Mr. Yost to France.
“We spent 10 days in France, and a good part of that at the Normandy beachhead area,” Matthews said. “That visit he took us on made history come alive. He was able to explain how the battle flowed. He was very much a student of military history.”
Mr. Yost married the former Judy Owens on Aug. 26, 1967, in Champaign. Their children, Jay and Julia Yost, are funeral directors in the family-owned business.
Hartman said Mr. Yost was “gung-ho about everything.”
“It’s sad,” he said of Tuesday’s accident, “but he was still doing what he loved to do.”