Obituary: Ralph Garrison Jr. / Skydiver thrilled crowds for decades

May 14, 1932 - Sept. 30, 2012

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Ralph E. Garrison Jr. spent his boyhood watching his father's barnstorming antics around the region, in which the World War I veteran jumped from airplanes to entertain and astonish people unaccustomed to such feats in the middle of the 20th century.

In adulthood, Mr. Garrison became just such a skydiver himself. At fairs, festivals and public occasions of every kind, he was among a team of several jumping from a plane into a target area. He heard applause for the stunts into his 70s, and still jumped even after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2011.

Mr. Garrison, most recently of Bloomfield, had surgery and fought the cancer successfully for a year. He died at age 80 Sunday at the Neville Island home of the eldest of his six children.

None of those children have taken after their father the way Mr. Garrison followed the footsteps of his. Four of the six have tried skydiving, but not for hundreds of public events. They do recall an unusual childhood spent as a large family gazing toward the clouds when the plane containing Mr. Garrison and several other members of the Pittsburgh Skydiving Team flew overhead.

"We'd see these black dots come out of the plane, and my mother would always close her eyes till somebody told her his parachute opened," said one of his two sons, William Garrison of Ben Avon.

"We'd follow the black speck, and follow it and follow it, and wait to see the parachute open, the black-and-gold one that was his. Then we'd say, 'OK, Daddy's parachute opened, we're good,' and we could go back to playing."

Mr. Garrison trained as a paratrooper in the Army's 187th Airborne Division during the Korean War. He made his living afterward as a salesman, the biggest stretch of it pushing Canadian Club to taverns and restaurants as a representative of Hiram Walker for about 20 years. He had other sales positions afterward before working in his 70s as a driver for Allegheny County's ACCESS transportation service.

The always-fit native of the North Side had a convivial, storytelling nature that suited those sales jobs. His marketing and people skills made him a natural fit as the promoter of the Pittsburgh Skydiving Team after he and several buddies who had been jumping recreationally formed it in the early 1970s.

They would become regular entertainment accompanying the Allegheny County Fair, Pittsburgh Regatta, St. Patrick's Day Parade and many other regional events. Mr. Garrison dropped from the sky for 39 straight years at the Canonsburg Fourth of July Festival until stopping a few years ago.

He and his colleagues would typically receive a couple hundred dollars each for their efforts. It wasn't about the money as much as relationships, and pride in his accomplishments.

"It's a very close bond you build with other jumpers," said a friend and fellow skydiver, Karl Poruben of Reserve. "It's a comradeship you develop through the years. ... It's a feeling I can't explain to you, to step out of the door of an aircraft."

Mr. Garrison would also travel to competitions around the country and world with friends belonging to POPS, or the Parachutists Over Phorty Society.

By the time he was 80, he was a member of JOES, for Jumpers Over Eighty Society, making his last jump for the fun of it this past June.

In Florida in 2003, when he was 71, he was in a formation of 11 skydivers over the age of 70 who set an age group record at the time by connecting with one another for nine seconds.

He was never seriously injured in more than half a century of jumping from planes, but he was part of one tragedy. Foul weather struck when his team was doing exhibition skydiving over the Point for 1970 St. Patrick's Day festivities. He ended up landing in trees on the Mount Washington hillside; but worse, a friend landed in the river, went under the water and drowned.

William Garrison gained even more appreciation for his father's exploits during his sole jump from a plane, after he turned 35. He froze just outside the door, even though he was safely on a static line, and his father inside the plane had to coax him to finally let go. He remembered the tricks his father would do for crowds, cutting away his main parachute to shock onlookers before relying on a secondary chute in the nick of time.

"Knowing he did what he did, all the free-falling and stunts and everything ... to be totally in charge of yourself like he was and be up there, it made me realize how really good he must be at what he did," William Garrison said.

Ralph Garrison is also survived by four daughters, Julie Withrow of Neville Island, Janet Getto of Peters, Mary Cullen of Friendship and Bonnie LoPiccolo of Cranberry; another son, Gary Garrison of Lower Burrell; a sister, Bonnie Wisniowski of the North Hills; 16 grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Friends will be received from 2 to 8 p.m. today at Winter Funeral Home, 4730 Friendship Ave., Bloomfield.

A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Maria Goretti Parish Liberty Campus, 4712 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield.

Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society, 320 Bilmar Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15205.

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Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255.

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