Tom Rice worked in the Sweetwater Union High School District for 44 years, including two decades at Hilltop High. He taught history and social studies and coached track and cross-country.
The 1940 Coronado High School graduate, who still lives in The Crown City, attended San Diego State College, where he was a top athlete.
But that’s not why hundreds gathered around a parachute “drop zone” on a sandy expanse Sunday next to the Hotel del Coronado.
It was all about D-Day — the Allied invasion of France that liberated Europe and hastened the end of World War II. And his repeat performance of his 75th anniversary act in 2019 — dropping out of a restored Air Force C-53D plane called the D-Day Doll.
Oh, and it was his 100th birthday.
After landing with his tandem parachute partner Art Shaffer amid the singing of “God Bless America,” Rice took a slow tour of the landing zone perimeter, waving and shaking hands from a lifeguard vehicle. (The original plan was to ferry him in a WWII-vintage Marine jeep. But it got stuck in the sand.)
“Phenomenal view,” he said of the twisting trip down — following several other jumpers mistaken as him. “It was spectacular. I think they brought some sand from the desert, and made it perfect.”
Then he kissed, clasped and chatted his way through a reception line of fellow veterans and military officers, ending on a stage where he hugged family members including a nun daughter and his wife of eight years, Brenda Carlson Rice.
A French paratrooper called him not a hero but a legend. Others sang his praises.
“They tried to elevate me to divinity and I wouldn’t go,” he said.
A week earlier, at an Honor Flight luncheon in Mission Bay to mark V-J Day, he said his birthday drop would be a “commemoration for all of those who did not make it. … It’s an important informational thing that we like to keep alive and talk the best we can because they never gave their lives. They had them taken away from them.”
At a 10-minute press conference after his sky-dive, Rice shared a clever but quirky wit.
Asked the secret to reaching 100, he said: “Keep moving. Push your internal organs to the maximum. You’ve got 15 extra years to deal with.”
How was he feeling Sunday? “I can take off my skin and dance around in my bones. Don’t look, though.”
His plans for his 101st birthday? Return to Normandy, visit two French villages that embraced him and visit the grave of his great-great-grandmother, “lying there waiting for me. Her name was Abilene. That’s all we know of her.”
With a young lady named C.J. Machado of the event sponsor Operation Call-To-Service helping him answer, he was asked how he got in shape for Sunday’s drop.
He had been prepared for two years — ahead of the June 2019 Normandy visit — working out a couple times a week, “maybe more,” at CrossFit Coronado. “And he walks,” she said. “He says: ‘Don’t bother shaking [my] hand unless you’re ready for a grip.’ And that’s how he judges the character of a man.”
(But Rice regretted not being able to lift his legs upon landing. “I couldn’t get my feet up high enough. But I tried. The boots are too heavy. “)
Rice’s character was forged young, not long after high school, when he joined the Army at Fort Rosecrans near San Diego. At 22, he volunteered for a new and untested branch of the Army that he dubbed “The Airborne Experiment.”
Calling himself a risk-taker, Rice in 1943 attended Camp Toccoa, Georgia, before being sent to the Air Force Troop School at Fort Benning. After 18 months of training, he joined the Screaming Eagles. He commanded a 12-paratrooper combat group and served as platoon sergeant for six months.
In 2004, he published his book: “Trial by Combat: A Paratrooper of the 101st Airborne Division Remembers the 1944 Battle of Normandy.”
The last question put to him Sunday: What’s your message for young people?
“Reach down and grab a hold of your internal organs as best you can,” he said. “And stretch ’em out as far as you can. Keep physically fit. And be prepared for anything. Face all of your chaotic situations. Reduce them to a danger. Reduce a danger to an inconvenience, and keep moving forward. End of paragraph.”