ZEPHYRHILLS — David "T.K." Hayes figures he has completed at least 8,000 skydives throughout the course of his life. Even so, he always remembers his first jump.
"There are no words to describe the feeling," said Hayes, the manager of Skydive City. "Nothing simulates the sensation. It's an experience for adventurers."
Now Hayes, 51, is taking his next big leap. After a 30-year hiatus from the field of academia, he will earn his associate of arts degree at the winter commencement ceremony today at Pasco-Hernando Community College's New Port Richey campus.
"I'm finally going to do the cap and gown thing and walk across the stage," he said with a chuckle, adding, "My wife will be very proud to see me."
Hayes credits his wife, Kelli Hayes, an assistant professor of biological sciences at PHCC East Campus in Dade City, with helping to bring him back to the classroom.
"She didn't nag me," he said. "She encouraged me."
A onetime student at the Marine Institute in Canada, this Newfoundland native earned a diploma in electronics technology in 1981. During summer break in Calgary that year, he stumbled across an opportunity to work in mainframe software support at IBM.
"At that point, a career held more appeal than going back to school," he said.
Even more appealing were the skydiving vacations Hayes enjoyed in Florida, at a place called Skydive City in Zephyrhills.
"I was a skydiver hobbyist," he said. "It was a place to blow off steam during the winter months."
In 1995 Hayes learned that his favorite vacation spot needed a new general manager; and after 14 years at IBM in Canada, he moved to Zephyrhills to make his hobby a career.
Now he oversees a facility that welcomes at least 7,000 skydivers each year, altogether taking some 70,000 jumps.
"Skydiving is my passion," he said. "It's a 24/7, 365-day-a-year job. I've never worked so hard in my life, but there's so much reward."
Still, he never forgot the one goal he had yet to accomplish: the attainment of a college degree. He had seen his friends earn advanced degrees in a variety of fields, inspiring him to ponder the possibility of earning his own.
Then in 2001, Hayes fell on his head during a botched landing, breaking his neck. He feared his skydiving career was over.
"Something like that can end your career pretty quickly," he said. "And without a degree, it's very difficult to find a new career. Education is the ultimate fallback."
Hayes recovered fully from his fall, with no lingering effects. But he remained determined to pursue his education, and three years ago he signed up as a part-time student at PHCC. The college helped him transfer credits from his earlier studies. Taking two to three classes a semester, he studied everything from algebra to humanities to public speaking.
"As an adult student I found it easier to focus," he said. "I had more life training."
Hayes said that he also found it easier to complete his assignments, thanks to the online resources available now. Above all, he says he benefitted from the enhanced perspective that only maturity and hindsight can provide.
"I still believe in pursuing dreams," he said, "but also to have a plan B."
Hayes intends to pursue a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of South Florida, with a possible future in environmentally sound "green" engineering. In the meantime he'll still be running the show at Skydive City.
"I don't see myself retiring," he said with a smile. "I've always believed that, since life is short, we should enjoy it while we're here — with no regrets."