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home : lifestyle : encore   April 30, 2016

7/11/2011 11:30:00 AM
'Ideaman' opts for slower life

Matthew Baker

After living a rollercoaster life of highs and lows, a thrill-seeking senior is finding personal peace through simplicity and volunteerism.

"I'm getting the gifts life is supposed to bring, it just took me a while to get there," said Jim Kaszynski, an Illinois Valley native, now living south of Cancun, Mexico, in the fishing village Puerto Morelos.

Visiting the Illinois Valley over the July 4 holiday, Kaszynski, 66, always had a knack for promotion and began making a name for himself locally in his mid-20s through a series of publicity stunts to benefit the local American Red Cross.

"The challenge of creating something that hasn't been done to create publicity has been my life," he said.

As a member of the Jaycees, Kaszynski decided to raise awareness of the Red Cross's annual blood drive in 1969 by sitting atop a telephone pole at St. John's Lutheran Church, Peru, for seven hours in cold, February weather. The publicity event raised a record-setting 350 pints of blood.

"I always have been called the idea man … of course, the more beer I drank the more ideas I came up with," he said.

The next year, he went a step further and encased himself inside a massive block of ice for a little more than eight hours. He survived the chilling situation wearing a wet suit and smuggling a bit of alcohol into the ice. A phone line kept him connected to the outside world.

That was followed by being buried inside a pair of welded together 50-gallon barrels in 1971.

Kaszynski moved to Arizona not long after that, where he repeated the buried alive stunt on other occasions.

Yet, the alcohol that fed his inspiration and kept him company throughout the solitary hours above and below ground and in ice, led to his downfall.

Behind the public confidence, Kaszynski was internally tormented. Over the next 20 years, he would turn to alcohol and later cocaine to "escape the reality, to escape the pain."

"I turned a multi-million dollar real estate business into a nightmare. I also lost a newspaper business that I had owned; a consulting company; a motivation company, and several other ventures that were a success. I turned them into painful failures.

"I have spent over $220,000 on cocaine, which took all my self-worth down the tubes," Kaszynski wrote in a scholarship application essay in the early 1990s.

Although he managed to quit drinking in 1981, drugs continued to ruin him and by October 1989 Kaszynski was homeless in Arizona, sleeping under a car with a piece of cardboard to keep warm.

That was the point he hit bottom.

"I've got to change something or I've got to die," he remembers thinking.

Through Alcoholics Anonymous, Kaszynski finally was able to be sober, although he admits that even now if he were to have a single drink he'd probably lose control again.

"I quit drugs, I quit alcohol. I only smoke. Now I've got to quit doing that," he said.

For Kaszynski, who spent his early years pushing himself to extremes, attempting to live sober was "the toughest challenge in my life."

Eventually, he started putting his life back together and though he still lives a very frugal lifestyle, he decided he was ready to retire at 65 years old.

While one might think Kaszynski would be ready to start slowing down in his 60s, he still managed to fall into more adventures.

He set out to try his hand at giving back by taking part in a volunteer program in Belize, but a misunderstanding over passport requirements landed him in dank jail cells for five fear-filled days.

"I'm thinking, 'how can this be happening to me? I'm living a good, clean life. I'm volunteering,'" he recalled.

At one point, Kaszynski thought he was going to be sentenced to six months in a Belize prison for improper identification, but was released after paying a $500 fine and was deported to Mexico, which led him to his current relaxed life, helping care for a small hotel and occasionally writing online.

His love for challenges continues. In June, he took part in a 3-kilometer ocean swim between Cancun and Isla Mujeres.

"Even if I fail I like the challenge of trying things," he said.

Throughout all the misadventures and despite living with few personal belongings on his Social Security payments, he has found a new sense of peace and joy.

"I've never been happier in my life," Kaszynski said.

And still he has his eyes set on the next challenge, a year of volunteering at an orphanage in Thailand.

"For me the gift that I get when I help another person far surpasses anything I could get when I had money," Kaszynski said.

He leaves in January.

"It's going to be exciting for me," he said.

Related Stories:
• Journey of a million steps ends with 'Camino miracle' for La Salle native
• Illinois Valley native plans to walk Camino de Santiago

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