86-year-old reaches new heights by sky diving

August 28, 1991|By Adon Taft | Adon Taft,Knight-Ridder

When you've jumped out of a plane at 9,600 feet to celebrate your 86th birthday by sky diving, what's left?

Manya Joyce is taking classes in scuba diving and would love to drive the pace car for the Indianapolis 500.

"You've got to reach out for glorious experiences," says the Russian-born resident of Singer Island in Palm Beach County, Fla., who received worldwide attention -- press calls from Australia, Europe and Canada -- for her April aerial antics above Clewiston, Fla. She welcomes the publicity if it creates interest in her pet project, the Senior Olympics.

"It's not an ego trip for me," insists Joyce, who has scores of pictures with personal notes from celebrities ranging from Burt Reynolds to Jimmy Carter. When she lived in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb, during her first marriage, her neighbors were Ernest Hemingway and John B. MacArthur. Her second husband, John St. George Joyce, was a member of a famous newspaper family in Ireland.

"It's all well and good to have the privilege to live a long time, but the manner in which you live makes a difference," says Joyce, a 5-foot-3 great-grandmother who takes a swim every day after her 6 a.m. walk and still plays volleyball "like a wild kid."

Then she tells you what she would do to make living better for thousands of retirees who, she says her research shows, are traumatized by a sedentary lifestyle -- endless bridge games and television viewing from a rocking chair.

"I would like to go to the senior centers where they are playing cards and get their butts out of those rocking chairs," says Joyce, who played golf nearly every day for two months when she left her business-management firm in Philadelphia to retire to Florida in 1975. "Then I would get them involved in competitive sports because competitiveness keeps people exercising regularly instead of intermittently."

Such brashness seems always to have been a part of Joyce's personality. While a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s, she occasionally played cards with Al Capone -- "a really pleasant fellow, very kind, really" -- in a bar called Colosimo's. He sent enough flowers to her apartment "to make it look like a funeral parlor," she recalls.

And Joyce still has no qualms about asking the likes of golfer Jack Nicklaus to help bankroll the Palm Beach segment of the Senior Olympics Nov. 30-Dec. 5. "I tell them it keeps people out of institutions and hospitals and saves them and me taxes."

Joyce is proud that nearly 7,000 people have taken part in the Palm Beach Olympics since she organized the first contests in 1980 after visiting the original games in California. Forty-five states (including Maryland) now have Senior Olympics.

She views her accomplishment as a payback for the fulfillment of a dream instilled in her by her father when she was 9.

Anticipating the Russian revolution, her father, an engineer who had helped build the Siberian railroad, bought forged passports and fled Kiev with his wife and four children. When their boat from Hamburg, Germany, entered the harbor at New York, he took Manya on deck. She was the oldest child and his pet.

"He showed me the Lady of Liberty and told me, 'This is the lady who opens the door to happiness, peace and prosperity.' I'll always remember that," she says.

Ever since, "I have been passionately in love with life," and she has undertaken everything with enthusiasm and without fear. Even that sky dive.

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