Staying fit can be a challenge as years pass on, but not for Abilene Christian University Bible professor Larry Henderson, whose love for God, others and his hobbies does not let him make age an excuse.
“I have a lot of reasons to take care of the body that God’s given me,” Henderson says. And skydiving is one of them.
In his office, accolades and photos of family, skydiving and travel adventure serve as a curtain behind his shelves of theology books, each bringing a different story to life of the varied work he has created and done.
Although in his early 70s, Henderson is a world-champion skydiver who combines his athleticism and Thailand mission work into inspiring others.
As something of a skydiving legend, his roots in Thailand have gotten him invited by their king and military for special jumps. He has been highlighted as an “expert” because of his many championship awards and organization of group jumps. In formation with other skydivers, he has created such mid-air masterpieces as the Texas, Ukraine and Thailand flag.
Skydiving Around the World
Born in Florida, Henderson was constantly surrounded by beaches and water. He took up scuba diving and later obtained his license to instruct.
When he was 6 years old, his family moved to Thailand, where he fell in love with the beautiful culture. He attended an international boarding school and lived there until he graduated and came to college at ACU.
He was introduced to the “non-mainstream sport” of skydiving during his time at ACU. He had friends who were skydivers and would invite him to jump with them for the price of $80. Henderson could not afford that much, so he would always pass, concentrating on his scuba diving instead. But his interest in skydiving was piqued.
He graduated from ACU in 1973 and married Pam, the love of his life and his biggest supporter.
He longed to go back to the place he once called home, so he and his wife moved to Thailand as missionaries in 1975, as the Vietnam war was coming to an end. With crossfire between nations filled with hatred, the perfect opportunity to make a difference arose.
The Thai military created a program to stop Communists from invading their country. They planned to stage a 200-person skydiving demonstration out of an aircraft along the border. Wherever someone landed, they would build a school.
Henderson accepted the challenge to help the community he had grown to love.
“There were three individuals in the church there that were involved in this program,” Henderson said. “I got to begin training with them and start skydiving. That was almost 50 years ago.”
After hours of intensive training of emergency procedures, expectations, correct exiting form and the process of gliding through the air, Henderson was yearning to get his feet off the ground.
As he buckled his harness and checked his equipment, he was anticipating what was to come. He loaded the aircraft and climbed to altitude with an instructor strapped to his back. He recalls feeling the zero-gravity weight, as the air intensely brushed his body. He made a safe landing in Bangkok, which became his home for the next 25 years.
Thai’s military plan was successful, resulting in more than 200 schools being built.
But soon after, the Thai government started cracking down on missionaries in the country. Henderson had to come up with a cover to stay.
“I was credentialed as a scuba instructor, with the thought that if they ever forced the missionaries to leave, well, I would have the platform to stay,” Henderson said.
Luckily, his wife found a job as a local teacher providing visas for them, teaching at the school that Henderson once attended, and where his children would follow.
As time went on, Henderson decided he needed to choose between scuba diving and skydiving. “I didn’t have time to pursue two different hobbies,” he said.
In a conversation with his father, he realized that while scuba diving allowed him more time to enjoy the sights, he was made for the air.
Within two years, as more sophisticated skydiving equipment became available, Henderson began to really embrace the sport.
“When I started skydiving, we were using military surplus equipment. It basically just dumped you on the ground,” Henderson said. “If that was the kind of gear I jumped [with] for the rest of my career, my career would’ve been pretty short,” he joked.
His family supported his hobby as his love for it grew. When he started to doubt his choice of a hobby and wanted to give up, his wife was the driving force not letting him quit.
He even made sure his son and daughter, both born in Thailand, were able to enjoy the unforgettable experience of floating in the air. When each turned the legal age to participate, he paid for their first skydive.
After their son left for college and time was drawing near for their daughter to do the same, Henderson and his wife decided it was time to move back to Abilene.
The dean of ACU’s Bible Department visited Thailand and invited Henderson to return to the university to teach.
Back in Abilene
When he returned to the U.S., Henderson found his love of fitness helped him make connections with others in the community.
He began a routine of keeping fit so he could enjoy the things he loves to do and the people he loves to be around. That routine now includes attending weekly yoga classes on campus and hitting the gym several times a week to stay “fit and flexible.”
“My desire to remain fit is not uniquely associated with skydiving,” Henderson said. “I want to stay fit so I can serve God. I want to stay fit so I can be of service to my family.”
Henderson found a group of fellow Bible professors who enjoy cycling.
Fellow instructor Steve Hare became “cycle buddies” with Henderson and soon discovered his gift of forming relationships.
“When we do races and rides together, every time we stop at a rest stop, he meets somebody he knows,” Hare said. “These conversations just start, and he’s pastoring, shepherding, encouraging, mentoring people. … That’s just kind of the way he is.”
When one of Henderson’s other colleagues, Glen Pemberton, became sick and lost some of his motor functions, Pemberton said he was one of his biggest encouragers in becoming active again in the form of hand cycling.
“I was in very poor shape because of all the physical stuff that had happened to me,” Pemberton said. “Steve Hare and Larry Henderson, in order to encourage me to keep at it, would come ride with me, and then they would go do their longer rides. They would take the time to ride with me very slowly so I could ride with them.”
For the Love of the Jump
Throughout his time at ACU, Henderson has continued to bring his love of skydiving into his classroom and the community.
In 2019, Henderson made a special dive into ACU’s Wildcat Stadium to deliver the game ball alongside a pair of his parachute pals.
“That was one of those special experiences,” Henderson said. “I’ve jumped into football stadiums around the world; that’s no big deal. Why was this jump so different? Then it dawned on me, I’ve never jumped into a stadium full of people who knew me.”
Throughout his journey he has met and collaborated with a fair share of interesting people, but one trumps them all.
“One of my dear friends has been in 10 of the last 11 James Bond movies,” Henderson. “He was the James Bond character in all of the aerial skydiving shots.”
This same friend took a leave from planning a skydiving world record with Henderson to jump with President George Bush.
While for some skydiving may be a fun activity to try on a free weekend, it represents much more for Henderson.
“There are millions of skydives made every year in the United States,” Henderson said. “People will make one or two jumps and experience something about it and kind of check it off their bucket list.”
Henderson has stayed with it for over half a century. Having completed more than 7,300 jumps, he plans to stay active, healthy and not stop any time soon.
“I always feel better when I’m healthy,” Henderson said.
By Mariah Williams
Photos by Shayli Anne Photography and Scott Delony