The life and times of adventurous Alumna Dorothy Custer
On May 30, 2012, Dorothy Custer ’33 celebrated her 101st birthday by zip lining through the Snake River Canyon.
A year later, Custer marked the occasion by BASE jumping off the famed Perrine Bridge in her hometown of Twin Falls, parachuting nearly 500 feet to the river bed below.
She summed up each thrill ride with the same thought: “It was too short.”
It was sincere commentary from a woman known for her sense of humor. While Custer’s birthday exploits have made her a local hero and a national Internet sensation, she does them not for publicity, but for a much simpler motive that defines both her longevity and her love for life:
If you are enjoying the journey, why should it end?
‘PLAIN OLD COUNTRY GIRL’
Custer was born Dorothy Cline on May 30, 1911. She spent the first two weeks of her life in Hailey before moving to Twin Falls where, apart from her three years at The College of Idaho, she has lived ever since.
As a child, Dorothy rode horseback 5¼ miles every day to attend school in Hansen north of Rock Creek. Her fearless enthusiasm for life shined through at a young age; she recalls climbing to the tops of the tallest trees at every opportunity and holding on to the spokes on the wheels of her family’s horse-drawn buggy—while it was in motion.
“I would just go around and around and around,” Custer said with a laugh. “I was the only one small enough to do it.”
Custer graduated from Hansen High School in 1929 and jumped at an invitation from her aunt to move to Caldwell, where she helped take care of her young cousins in exchange for room and board while attending the C of I. It was hard work—she often had to run seven blocks to campus to make it to class on time—but Custer made the most of her time at the College.
“I enjoyed it very much,” said Custer, whose college interests included drama, choir, a vocal quartet, Glee Club, the Myra Tella sorority and “all athletic things.”
“I enjoyed PE classes a great deal,” she recalls. “Because I was the smallest one, I always got to be the top one in the pyramid.”
Today, Custer is one of the few living C of I alumni to have taken classes from founding President Rev. William Judson Boone.
“Dear old Dr. Boone was my botany teacher,” she said. “I can still hear his voice today talking about the roots of the plant. He would pronounce it ‘the ruts’ and we all would laugh.”
Custer left the College after three years—tuition was $50 per semester, and with her family only bringing in $30 per month, she couldn’t afford to stay. After college, she took a job in the Murtaugh School District teaching the sixth and seventh grade. She shared her love of the harmonica with her students, forming a harmonica band. She also met and married Marvin Custer, with whom she would raise four children and enjoy 68 years of marriage.
Custer’s eyes moisten as she looks back on those early years.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed every day of it. But I’m just a plain old country girl, a cowboy’s daughter.”
One doesn’t spend 102 years in Idaho without experiencing their fair share of outdoor adventure. But some of Dorothy’s most memorable exploits have come during her second century in the Gem State.
Her 2011 birthday zip line attracted big crowds, media attention and thousands of views on the Internet. She was the first customer to ride “Zip the Snake,” which opened to the public shortly thereafter and gave away 101 rides in Custer’s honor.
Custer, who played her harmonica while zipping hundreds of feet above the Snake River Canyon, had this to say about the experience:
“It was over so quick I hardly knew I was there. I’ve climbed trees higher than that!”
For her most recent birthday celebration, Custer had planned to jump out of a plane. But the $400 price tag seemed frivolous to her, so she decided she would spend her birthday at home.
That’s when Dorothy’s grandson, Greg Custer, stepped in and arranged for his grandmother to meet with professional BASE jumper Sean Chuma. After meeting Custer, Chuma offered to accompany her on a tandem jump off the Perrine Bridge.
“We talked about it and I said, ‘I can’t see any reason why not, I’ll either make it or I won’t,’ ” Custer said. “So over we went, and I laughed the whole way down. I just enjoyed it so much, it was a thrill; I wasn’t afraid one bit!”
The jump put the fearless centenarian into the record books as the world’s oldest BASE jumper.
“I was a lot more nervous than she was,” Chuma said. “She was just ready to go. Sometimes with parachutes you can land hard, so I just kept it in my mind that we needed to have a soft, perfect landing, and that’s how it went.
“I knew it was a big challenge, but who am I to tell her she couldn’t do it? And I’m glad we did—it turned out to be one of the most special days of my life.”
Just weeks after the BASE jump, Chuma helped Custer fulfill another lifelong dream: Riding an elephant. Through some connections with a circus employee, Chuma and a friend arranged for Custer to ride an elephant when the Shriner Circus came to Filer. Dorothy’s son, Neal Custer, also arranged for her to ride an elephant at a circus in Boise this summer.
After waiting 102 years to ride the world’s largest land animal, Dorothy got her wish twice in a month’s time.
“I’ve just always thought an elephant was an interesting animal,” Custer said. “I’m so glad I finally got to ride one.”
Custer has been on many memorable rides through the years, from her horseback riding childhood to snowmobile trips with Marvin through the Magic Valley’s South Hills. She’s also traveled through most of the United States and much of the world, including a climb up a towering staircase to a mountaintop monastery in Thailand.
But no matter where her travels take her, Custer’s “ruts” remain firmly planted in Idaho’s Magic Valley.
“This is home,” she said. “I wouldn’t live any other place.”
IN THE LIMELIGHT
When she was 5 years old, Dorothy received an invitation to play Tiny Tim in a local production of A Christmas Carol.
She hasn’t turned down an opportunity to perform since.
“It’s just in me—I’m a Gemini,” Custer says of her love for the stage. “When I got to be Tiny Tim, I liked it. When I’m in front of people, I don’t have to think, the words just come out.”
Custer majored in drama at The College of Idaho and was a member of several campus performing groups, including Scarlet Masque. She said one of her college performances drew a particularly flattering review that compared Custer to silent film star Louise Fazenda.
After her children were grown, Custer’s performing career took off. She created a “Granny” alias based on The Beverly Hillbillies character of the same name and went on to develop more than a dozen characters for her standup routines. She incorporated costumes, handmade dog marionette puppets, singing and, of course, the harmonica into her routines, traveling all over Idaho and the West.
“I’ve had so much fun all my life,” said Custer, a mischievous grin spreading across her face. “The bubbles just keep coming. I don’t mean to be funny or anything like that, it’s just me.”
Already a celebrity in the Magic Valley, Custer shot to national fame in 2011. After being named Pioneer of the Year at the age of 100, Custer’s story caught the attention of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She appeared on the show June 21 and immediately became a favorite of Leno and his audience.
Custer played “Turkey in the Straw” on her harmonica during the segment, and her story of a blustery day at Universal Studios left Leno in stitches.
“I had a skirt on, and the wind was blowing it, and I was hanging on to my hat,” Custer told Leno. “And a kid came up to me and said ‘Lady, you better stop hanging on to your hat and pull your dress down, you’re showing everything you’ve got.’ And I said ‘I don’t care, what they see down there is 100 years old. This is a brand new hat!’ ”
The Leno appearance made Custer an overnight Internet sensation. Video of the segment has received more than 800,000 views on the website of KTVB News Channel 7, making it the most-watched story in the history of the highly rated, Boise-based news station. Subsequent KTVB stories featuring Custer’s birthday adventures also have garnered thousands of views.
In February 2012, Leno invited Custer back onto the program as his Valentine’s Day “sweetheart.” She was a crowd pleaser once again, serenading Leno with a rendition of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and sharing a laugh with actor Tyler Perry.
“Jay asked me if anyone had recognized me since my first time on the show,” Custer said. “I told him about one lady who came rushing up and thought she knew me. I told her she must be mistaken, because I didn’t know her, and she said ‘I guess I am mistaken, but you sure look like Helen Brown.’ I looked at her and I said ‘Well, I don’t look very good in yellow, either.’ And Tyler Perry fell over.”
Custer never imagined she’d appear on Leno, let alone become a crowd favorite. But, in typical Dorothy fashion, she rolled with the opportunity and made the most of it.
“I was just very flattered by it and very pleased, it was wonderful,” Custer said. “I’ve never met a nicer man. Jay is a gentleman, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
‘DON’T THINK OF AGE’
“What is the secret to your longevity?”
It is a question that has been asked of Custer more times than she can count.
Dorothy knows the inquiry is coming, but she smiles thoughtfully as she answers it once again.
“I think we are all given a purpose,” Custer said. “Some of us are just given a little bit more time. I think a great lot of it is just to think positive and don’t think of age! I never think of age. I’m game for whatever comes along.”
Part of Custer’s longevity may be hereditary. Her grandmother lived to be 97, and she was told her grandmother’s grandmother was 106. Whatever her secret is, it certainly is working. Dorothy still lives in her own little house outside of Twin Falls, welcoming all visitors but issuing a stern warning to would-be scammers: “I’m a very suspicious person. I won’t let them get me!”
Sally Skinner ’78, director of alumni and parent relations, came away impressed after recently meeting Dorothy for the first time.
“It’s not every day we get to meet a charming and quick-witted alumna who can share stories about taking botany from Dr. Boone,” Skinner said. “At times, it felt like we were time travelers—Dorothy is a link to the past. But it’s clear that she doesn’t live in the past. She relishes every moment of every day, finding the thrill of new challenges and the joy of the simple things. I’m sure Dr. Boone would be proud of his former student. We certainly are.”
Custer made a similar impact on her BASE jump partner, Chuma.
“I’m honored to have her in my life,” Chuma said. “She’s a special lady. She’s so wise and she knows so much, but I think my favorite thing about her is how she doesn’t think about age. That’s how she stays young, and I think it’s a great way to live your life.”
And Greg Custer, who lives in Twin Falls and sees Dorothy more often than anyone these days, just smiles and laughs at his grandmother’s growing fame.
“People are surprised by her zest for life, but she’s always had it,” Greg Custer said. “I came out to see her maybe five years ago and she was crawling over the fence with a chainsaw to take care of a tree. That’s just grandma.”
Custer says she sometimes wonders what purpose her life has left to fulfill, but she’s ready to embrace whatever comes. In the meantime, she’ll keep playing her beloved harmonica like nobody’s business, whether for a national television audience, a living room full of visitors, or no one but her cat, Shadow.
She still enjoys the music, so why should it end?