Jumping 6,200 times over the past forty years, Bible professor Larry Henderson shares his love for skydiving.
At the young age of 66, Larry Henderson, professor of Bible, is a man of many hidden talents and passions. Wearing a beige Magellan button-down tucked into his dark wash jeans and complemented with matching beige slip-on shoes, Henderson doesn’t slump to the common stereotype of a versed Bible professor.
While many bystanders see a tall, grey-haired man with bright blue eyes, Henderson isn’t your average grandpa, professor or World Wide Witness extraordinaire.
Henderson is a thrill-seeking, Jesus-loving, world record-setting competitive sky diver.
From teaching Bible to directing a renowned mission program to fearlessly jumping 6,200 times out of planes, Henderson said he would never be able to do anything if he hadn’t changed his major, found his supportive wife and connected with people across the world.
“I always, even as a child, loved Jesus,” Henderson said. “Not saying I always did it faithfully, but I tried to read my Bible and care about what scripture said and how it could change my mind. I was a sophomore when I decided to change my major to bible. I loved Jesus and I wanted to serve him and wanted to do something with my life. The realization that I needed to do more for the kingdom. I needed to be serious and if I’m going to be serious, I need to know what God’s words says.”
Changing his major from history to Bible, Henderson said he felt the need to return to the place where his childhood and first love for Jesus was sparked – Bangkok, Thailand. Not long after marrying his wife, Pam, the Henderson’s packed up and moved across the globe to serve and teach.
“Going back to Thailand seemed to be a logical step for me. To go back to a country where very few people know the story of Jesus,” said Henderson.
When walking into his office, one can see the various knick-knacks, family photos and study guides lounging around his desk facing the upper walkway of the Onstead-Packer Bible building. A Beach Boys album, family scuba diving photos and ceramic hands stand proudly among the edge of his wide window. And just to the left of the wooden door, one particular picture hangs above his cushioned chair. Pointing to the picture, Henderson explains “Oh yes, that was when we set two world-records last month at the Arizona World Record competition. That was for the largest, free-fall formation and there were about four hundred people in that formation.” Larry points himself out in the picture dressed in a bright skydiving suit and explains the formation and the difficulties of getting just the right shot, formation and timing before the parachute must be pulled.
Henderson said his first encounter with jumping occurred when he had a couple of friends in college jump, but wasn’t too sure if he would be up for the challenge or the funds.
It wasn’t until he lived in Thailand, when he decided to participate in a skydiving event sponsored by the government to protect the border between the communist regime and Thailand, that Henderson’s love for the sport kicked in. At the end of the Vietnam War, Henderson said he helped build school along the border of Thailand to combat the communist from entering into Thailand. Once the school program proved to be an effective defense for the Thai government, Henderson said his connections in the skydiving world began to launch.
For the past forty years, Henderson has competed in thousands of world record-breaking groups across the world and has enjoyed every second of it.
“When you’re diving, you have to be really intentional and focused about it and fired up to be doing this [competing] and that you’re actually doing something. Whereas, if it’s just a jump with your buds, then you don’t need to be as focused. That might be all that exciting. You can let your mind daydream and something, if you want to,” said Henderson nonchalantly. “But, when you’re at a national competition, and it’s the final round and a medal is hanging in the balance, you have to be very focused and be thinking exactly what it is you’re going to do even the second you step out the door.”
For just a few seconds, Henderson was flying. With laser-like focus and a calm attitude, Henderson kept jumping. The rush of the wind, the beauty of the earth below and the feeling of complete freedom was suddenly tangible.
“What did it feel like when you first jumped?”
“Well, the first jump wasn’t as bad as the second jump,” laughed Henderson. “The second one, all I could think about is ‘oh my goodness, what am I doing?.’ But, the first jump I was pretty focused, pretty intentional, and I was confident. The second jump, I was less confident.”
“Why do you think?”
“Well, because I knew more of what to expect and the rush and dangers that were present when you’re in the air,” said Henderson.
And yet, he continued to jump. Henderson said from that point one on, jumping began to hold a very special place in his heart and his wife began to notice. While both attending ACU in the late 1980s, Henderson said Pam was very adventurous. From taking scuba diving lessons to taking some leaps of faith, herself, Henderson’s wife has seen the great benefits of Larry’s favorite sport.
“I’m sure there was some concern in the early years of our marriage. Since then, she’s been very supportive. She is very knowledgeable and she’s been hired to work for many world record competitions and special events because of her ability on the ground, not in the air. But, sometimes she’ll tell me ‘Larry, you need to go jump because you’re getting hard to live with’,” laughs Henderson. “She knows skydiving blows the stress off or something and it tends to make life with me easier to live with. She has confidence in my ability. She does want me to be careful, but she is always there and supportive of me.”
After spending 25 years in a Thailand, the Henderson’s thought it was time to move back to the United States.
“Our kids were born there [Thailand], our son graduated from high school there [Thailand], and then he decided to go to ACU,” Henderson said. “Then, my daughter was getting ready to graduate and my wife said ‘with two kids living at ACU, I’m not going to be too happy living in Bangkok.’ So, we decided to move back here [Abilene]. Now, I’m here.”
With one move and after packing up all of their belongings, the Henderson’s traveled across the globe and returned to the Big Country. Receiving a job as an undergraduate professor of Bible and missions in 2000, Henderson said his life has been quite an adventure thus far. Although Henderson thought his thrill-seeking days were over, Henderson said he somehow found the way to get back to the mile high. Traveling across Texas and jumping in various hill country ranches, it wasn’t long until Henderson was back in the game.
“Several years ago, I considered leaving the sport and my wife said ‘No, Larry. Skydiving keeps you young’,” said Henderson. “I then, talked to my boss and he said ‘Well, you can do whatever you want, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Skydiving gives you energy and it helps you being a better employee.’ So, I thought, if my wife and my boss were encouraging me to keep at it, they helped me realize that this sport is a really important part of my life. So, I try to keep it [skydiving] in check.”
Talk to any of his students, co-workers or scholarly peers and they’ll tell you the positive energy and young-at-heart demeanor Henderson brings to the department.
Rodney Ashlock, chair of the Bible, missions and ministry department, said Henderson’s love for Jesus and life brings a great balance in both his classrooms and relationships.
“Larry is a phenomenal person who has a tremendous heart for students and a unique talent for skydiving,” said Ashlock. “He captures the heart and imagination of students as he tells stories about sharing God’s word in exotic places and exciting ways. He is genuine and compassionate and wants nothing more than for everyone to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Reaching for his leather Bible sitting atop a pile of newly printed flyers, Henderson begins to read Colossians 3:23.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men,” recites Henderson. “And so, it’s kind of like whatever it is you’re doing, you need to be serious about it. I think [skydiving] is one way I can bring honor to God,” said Henderson. “I try to be serious about my skydiving and I ask God to use this as a way to bring glory to God. And I would like to think that my skydiving friends, that they see something of Jesus in my life. I’ve talked with hundreds of people. I’ve prayed with hundreds of them. I would like to think that God is using me to do something of His will and in some settings, I don’t think I do it particularly well, but it is a goal of mine.”
Now, as a grandfather, Henderson said he is starting to reevaluate the things most important in his life – Christ, family and skydiving, in that order.
“There is some point where it will no longer either be rewarding for me or won’t be worth the effort or if I feel like I’m not at the top of my game, I would want to step back,” said Henderson. “I want to be able to carry my own weight. But, I’ve really been blessed with people with the people I’ve known and the doors that have been open to me as gifts from God. And I am grateful to be participating in something that I consider to be so much fun.”