One day before her late husband’s birthday, Maxine Reisenleiter jumped from a plane, falling at a speed of 125 miles an hour. A parachute slowed her descent, leaving the 76-year-old widow bruised from the harness but happy nonetheless.
It was her maiden jump, an event designed to honor her husband, Harry ‘Lee’ Reisenleiter, who was a paratrooper during WWII. “He always wanted to jump without being shot at,” Reisenleiter said. Because Lee never had the chance to skydive after the war and during their 52 years of marriage, Reisenleiter did it for him posthumously in July 2000.
Since then, the Brentwood widow and grandmother jumped six more times, and helped transform a 1942 C-47 used to transport paratroopers on D-Day during World War II into a medical cargo plane for Wings of Hope.
Reisenleiter was one of 18 women who called themselves the ‘Rosie the Riveter Crew’ that retooled the aging aircraft from military to humanitarian missions. It would drop medical supplies to remote sections of the world.
The all-women crew dismantled the plane, wrestling off parts beginning with the nosecone and propellers.
“Some of those bolts were so huge it took two of us to loosen them, but we did it,” she said. The women refurbished everything, including the wings, which spanned 90 feet.
“We removed them, sanded them, power-blasted, primed and wrapped them with a special fabric that we ironed beforehand,” she said. They wound another layer of fabric on the wings and sewed it with one-foot long needles.
A couple of retired engineers stood by and told the women what to do.
“It was so much fun,” Reisenleiter said, her cornflower blue eyes sparkling. The project took about a year. She was 78 when the plane was completed.
At the same time that she was working on the plane, she was also a hospice volunteer, helping those with less than six months to live.
Her dedication to her patients runs deep.
“I’ve spent the night with them. I’ve shopped for them. I’ve cooked for them,” she said. She received the state's Heart of Hospice award in 2004.
But Reisenleiter has a personal life too.
Twice a year she drives to visit family in Texas. She makes the eleven-hour trip it to Dallas in a day, then on to Texarkana.
Despite these feats, and in spite of her age, Reisenleiter considers herself to be a “run-of-the-mill” and “average” senior.
Neighbor and school board member Katrina Harper admires her, though. “She’s unstoppable,” Harper said. “I just love her!”
Although Reisenleiter is Texas born, she’s vintage Brentwood.
Her family moved from Minter, TX, when Maxine was a toddler. She attended Brentwood’s old Grade School No. 1 (now the site of Walgreen’s) and was taught by Josephine McGrath, for whom McGrath Elementary was named. She attended Mark Twain when it was a junior high school.
Reisenleiter was also ’s first drum majorette. “I was good at twirling a baton over telephone wires,” she said. A member of the class of 1941, she is also one of the founding members of the high school’s alumnae association.
Following graduation, and during the war, she worked the switchboard at Union Electric. At night, she volunteered at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond Heights as a nurse’s aid. “ I was trained to do everything a real nurse did so they could go overseas,” Reisenleiter said.
She met her husband after the war at the annual Webster Groves and Kirkwood Thanksgiving Day football game in 1945. They married in September 1946. Their children Harry and Melissa (Missy) were born in 1947 and 1953.
When the children were older, Reisenleiter managed Brentwood Lanes.
“Working at Brentwood Lanes in it's hey-day was a great experience. It was a family affair. I could have them with me. Harry (16), I had working as a mechanic on Saturdays; Missy (10), was the baby sitter for the leagues, and my husband would be bowling or running errands,” she said.
Reisenleiter still lives in the family home on St. Clair that she shared with her husband for most of their marriage. However, she almost lost it.
Fire broke out a year ago when a space heater in the basement malfunctioned. Reisenleiter had been working over the heater, topping off candles when, by chance, her computer beeped, indicating a new email. In the few steps it took her to get to the computer, the heater had a power surge, sending a huge flame where she had stood.
“I heard a whoosh,” she said. In the seven minutes it took the fire department to arrive, the fire had made its way through the center of the house. Damage was estimated at $100,000.
After the house was repaired–it took several months–she tripped on a nail on the wooden stairs leading to her basement. It was a near-fatal fall that left her in the hospital and in a rehab center for two months.
Though still bruised, she’s back home. “I’m lucky to be alive,” she said. “I thank my guardian angel, but I sure keep her busy.
Although she wants “to stick with hospice” in the New Year and is waiting to be assigned to a patient, Reisenleiter has not dismissed the possibility of doing something else too.
“I’ll just have to wait and see what comes along,” she said.