A gift to remember

Jim Torphy has celebrated quite a few birthdays over the course of his life. At 90 years old, his personal anniversary has become somewhat more impressive though, and so his birthday party last month surpassed what most of us go through each year by quite a bit.

Torphy is a pilot. In fact, he’s a pilot’s pilot. He’s an airplane kind of guy, who loves gliders, too. He’s flown with wheels on the end of his gear, but is equally comfortable putting a set of floats down on the water. He’s the kind of man who is right at home in a Piper Cub, yet holds himself and his students to the highest standards.

He’s not actively instructing any longer, but he is flying with as much precision and care as ever, so it was no surprise that he climbed into his classic Cub on a recent Tuesday afternoon and flew himself around the neighborhood to mark his 90th birthday.

We should all be so spry and sharp at such an advanced age.

After spending the bulk of his working life as a flight instructor and flight school owner in Indiana, Torphy (pronounced Tor-pee) retired to Florida on a full-time basis several years ago. He has been a fixture at Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven since his arrival in the area, and has shown no shyness when it comes to making friends, giving advice, or cracking a joke. He is well liked, there is no doubt about that, so it was no great surprise to find the hangar at the seaplane base converted into Party Central to celebrate the big birthday. The seaplanes were evicted for the evening so the space could be filled with tables and chairs and more friends than most of us will amass in a lifetime.

Nearly 100 people of all ages filled the metal hangar beside Lake Jessie for the big event. Many of the family and guests were local, although some came from locations as far removed as Dallas. The guest of honor has made an impact on the lives of so many people over the course of his life, it was little wonder they traveled considerable distances to wish him well on a very big day. Even those who couldn’t personally attend made their well wishes known, including legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight, who sent a letter thanking Torphy for his years as a dedicated fan of the Hoosiers.

Torphy himself weaved between tables shaking hands, telling stories, and acting like the world’s most accommodating maitre d’. His beloved Cub sat in the doorway of the hangar until it had to be moved to a safer location, due to thunderstorms approaching from the west.

Jim’s son Bill taxied the airplane to put it away, with Jim taking up the other seat. Bill is an experienced hand at the Cub. In fact, he soloed in this very airplane when he was a teenager, as have several of Jim’s grandchildren. But that doesn’t mean he can taxi up to the standards of the old master, even after all these years. “I can’t taxi worth @#^%$^ when he’s in the airplane,” joked Bill as he spoke to the overflow crowd gathered for dinner and cupcakes.

Of course the issue at the heart of any birthday celebration is the gifts. But what do you get a man who is 90 years old, has done everything he ever wanted to do, and even trained a student who eventually went on to pilot the Space Shuttle?

Jon and Chuck Brown came up with a fine solution to that age-old puzzle. They gave Torphy a room. Specifically, the screened-in porch that is the central gathering spot on the dock, located just behind the offices.

“It’s the most revered place at the seaplane base,” said Jon Brown in his comments to the audience. With that, Jon and his brother Chuck held aloft a wooden plaque emblazoned with white lettering that reads “The Jim Torphy Room.”

In typical understated fashion, the man at the center of the celebration summed up his big night well. “I’ve had a great time,” said Jim. “And I hope everybody else has too.”

Those are fine words to live by. Simple, elegant, and all inclusive. Just like Jim Torphy himself.

For more information: BrownsSeaplane.com


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  1. Bill Torphy says

    Your writing skills are amazing….What a wonderful job of telling a great Aviation Story….Thank you for your kind words….
    Best Regards,
    Bill Torphy

  2. Kathy Torphy Avant says

    Thanks for such a wonderful and well written article about my Dad.  It was a wonderful celebration indeed. 
    Kathy Torphy Avant

  3. Frank R. Sandoval says

    Wow!!! What a great story, Mr. Beckett. And what a great Ambassador he would make for General Avaition. Has anyone asked?

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