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updated: 2/4/2010 5:01 AM

Skyjacked in 1969 ordeal, Barrington man never let it color his life

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  • Letter from United Airlines to Bob DeFreitas after his 1969 hijacking ordeal.

    Letter from United Airlines to Bob DeFreitas after his 1969 hijacking ordeal.
    Courtesy Tony DiOrio

By Eileen O. Daday

In 1969, Robert DeFreitas came within an eyelash of being shot to death, before a flight attendant agreed to the demands of a Cuban hijacker and opened the cockpit door.

It happened on a flight from Los Angeles to New York, where Mr. DeFreitas, a tall man, asked to change seats to give himself more leg room.

He had the misfortune of being seated next to an armed hijacker. Midway during the flight, the hijacker put a gun to Mr. DeFreitas's head and marched him to the front of the plane.

The hijacker reportedly told the flight attendant that he would count to three before shooting Mr. DeFreitas, if she didn't open the cockpit door.

In press clippings from the time, Mr. DeFreitas was described as the first civilian to be held as hostage during the series of hijackings to Cuba, which peaked that year.

Mr. DeFreitas not only survived the hijacking, which resulted in the pilot rerouting the plane to Havana, but he lived to the age of 85 after a successful career as a magazine publisher.

A 40-year resident of Barrington, he passed away on Friday, Jan. 29.

"He never talked about it much," said his wife, Yvonne. "He never considered himself a hero."

His stepson, Tony DiOrio, said Mr. DeFreitas's World War II service in the Army Air Corps prepared him for life and death situations. He was shot down over China in 1945 on a reconnaissance mission before being rescued by Chinese allies.

"He kept his head about him," DiOrio said, when describing his ability to withstand the hijacking.

At the time of the fateful flight, Mr. DeFreitas was sales and marketing director for Cahners Publishing. He became publisher of one of its magazines, Construction Equipment, shortly after the hijacking.

"Bob was the consummate salesperson," says former colleague, Mike Procaro of Palatine. "The way he used to tell the story, he tried to strike up a conversation with the guy and sell him some advertising, before he put a gun to his head."

Colleagues said under Mr. DeFreitas' leadership, the small trade magazine became a leading publication in the construction industry, and one that advocated nationally for its interests.

In 1981, Mr. DeFreitas met President Ronald Reagan in the White House, where he presented Reagan with a golden hard-hat for the president's "Rebuilding America" program, including its infrastructure of roads, bridges and tunnels.

Family members say the hijacking never deterred him from flying, and he continued with his busy travel schedule.

"He continued to fly, and he always flew United," DiOrio added.

His harrowing experience drew letters from business clients across the industry, as well as playful cartoons, which Mr. DeFreitas saved in a scrapbook.

The scrapbook also includes artifacts found in the hijacker's bag, including stories about the revolutionary Che Guevara, as well as a letter from the United Airlines president apologizing for his ordeal.

United also presented him with an elegant ballpoint pen as a token of their appreciation for what he had endured. Mr. DeFreitas prized it, and carried it with him for years, until a flight attendant on another United flight asked to borrow a pen, and she never returned it.

Besides his wife and stepson, Mr. DeFreitas is survived by his children Cynthia (William) Barrett, Pamela (David) Berari, Michelle (Randy) Kottke, Sarah DeFreitas and Michael (Jenay) DiOrio; as well as 11 grandchildren.

Visitation will take place at 10 a.m. before an 11:30 a.m. funeral service on Saturday, Feb. 6, at the Davenport Family Funeral Home, 149 W. Main St. in Barrington.