Jacques-André Istel (born 1929 in Paris, France) is a French-American recreational parachutist and investment banker widely responsible for popularizing parachuting in the United States. He is sometimes called "the father of American skydiving." He founded a city in southeastern California, which he named Felicity, and it is here that he founded the Museum of History in Granite.
Istel was born in France to Yvonne Istel, a prominent volunteer in both World War I and World War II, and André Istel, an investment banker and diplomat, representing the de Gaulle government at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference. He, his mother and siblings fled France in 1940 to avoid the German invasion. He attended The Stony Brook School, entering with barely any English, and graduated salutatorian of his class in 1945. He studied economics at Princeton University, graduating in 1949, and served in the U.S. Marines during the Korean War. Istel earned the rank of LtCol.
Istel first tried parachuting in 1950, and quickly became an expert. He soon started popularizing parachuting in America by touring college campuses and leading the American team he organized to the World Championship of Parachuting in 1956. Istel, at that time a Captain in the reserves, wrote to HQMC recommending the use of free fall parachuting for reconnaissance. The letter ultimately led to the "HALO" (high altitude low opening) project.
In 1958, he captained the U.S. team that won the French Coupe du Monde, together with Lew Sanborn, Dana Smith, and Charlie Hillard. He led the team that set the first world records for the US in 1961.
He insisted on safety while parachuting, discussing safety regulations with the Civil Aeronautics Administration and pioneering the Telsan technique with Sanborn. He also co-founded Parachutes, Inc. with Sanborn, a company that designed parachutes and opened the first parachuting school in America.
He is thought to be the first sport parachutist in America to wear a helmet-mounted camera in an attempt to record images during freefall. Having opened the first commercial jump center in Orange, Massachusetts, Jumptown, he believed that exciting footage would be an important way to get people interested in jumping out of planes.
He was awarded the Leo Stevens Award for parachuting in 1958, and, decades later, the award is given by a museum in the town he founded. He made his last jump in 1972 and sold Parachutes, Inc. in the mid-1980s.
In 1985, Istel wrote a children's book entitled Coe, the Good Dragon at the Center of the World, and a year later founded the town of Felicity, California, named after his wife, Felicia. The town has a plaque inside of a pyramid on which the story claims the center of the world is located. The town also has various other structures, including numerous granite monuments on which important names and events are engraved, as well as about 30 people. In 1985, Imperial County, California recognized the site as the center of the world, as did the French government in 1989. He is currently the mayor of Felicity. As one of 135 candidates, he gained two write-in votes in the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election as a Republican.
Museum of History in Granite
The Museum of History in Granite, now a candidate as a World Heritage Site, was founded by Istel as a division of the Hall of Fame of Parachuting (founded 1973). This two decade effort is the crowning achievement of his life. Eighteen granite monuments include eight monuments to the History of Humanity, the History of Arizona (2010), the Marine Corps Korean War Memorial (1998), the History of French Aviation (2002), the History of the French Foreign Legion (2003) and to be dedicated on February 22, 2014, the History of the United States. These 100 foot granite monuments are designed to last 4000 years.
Among unusual recognition, Mr. Istel has received Honorary Master of Sports of the Soviet Union 1956, First Class Honorary Legionnaire by the French Foreign Legion in 2013, and Outstanding Marine, signed by two commandants of the USMC and a third commandant wrote: "we are a better Corps today because of you." He has received many commendations about Felicity and the Museum of History in Granite. John C. Bogle, former CEO of The Vanguard Group, wrote: "You have created an extraordinary monument to all humankind and done so with class and thoroughness."
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