Unlocking the Secret to Longevity
Three Generations of Fitness
Meet 92 year old Billie Bob Sykes, her daughter Pat and granddaughter, Meagan Massimillo. The women represent a family whose legacy is all about pushing boundaries and inspiring others. What they have proven and what is evident in all of their lives is that the secret to longevity is in fact on ongoing pursuit of fitness and fun.
Their family story begins like a 1940s classic movie starring the family matriarch: Billie Bob Howell, a southern girl who loves the great outdoors, leaves her small hometown behind for a preparatory school in Philadelphia and college in Atlanta, unexpectedly becoming a society debutante. Not waiting around to find her prince, she returns home for flying lessons instead.
Billie Bob Howell Sykes, her daughter Patricia (Pat) Howell Massimillo and granddaughter, Meagan Howell Massimillo, illustrate the power of families who support healthy lifestyles and aren’t afraid to push boundaries.
“My parents had a love of adventure and travel,” says Billie Bob today. “As a young girl, I was always active and we spent a lot of time outdoors.”
While some of us struggle to put New Year’s resolutions into practice for healthier lifestyle on our search for the secret to longevity, this Gainesville family appears to have already unlocked the health, fitness and longevity over generations. Their formula for slowing down the hands of time is pretty simple: follow your passion, keep active, enjoy family adventures and eat sensibly.
In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services listed its top-10 dietary guidelines. The report encourages developing healthy eating habits that fit your own lifestyle and includes a reminder that physical activity is one pursuit that everyone can do to improve their health.
Born in 1925, when the average life expectancy for a woman was just 57, Billie Bob was chasing fitness and longevity long before gym’s made it cool. Over the last 17 years she has become a gym regular who believes fitness and longevity go hand in hand. She attends fitness classes at Gainesville Health and Fitness several times a week and then stays on during the day to greet and encourage other seniors and those of all ages to reach their fitness goals. A nametag identifies her as ‘Hostess’ at Gainesville Health & Fitness Center, where she rotates between its three facilities.
Billie Bob was born during prohibition and only four years before the Great Depression. Her family lived in a tiny Georgia town, 35 miles northwest of Tallahassee, called of Bainbridge. Her parents owned the three-story Bond-Aire hotel. The family made their home on the top floor of the hotel. The Bond-Aire’s cook, whom they called Granny, was who suggested the unique name for the couple’s infant daughter.
“Granny’s suggestion was to name me Billie, after my mother, Willie Mae, who was also called Billie by her mother,” explains Billy Bob. “She added Bob after my father Robert Sykes or Mr. Bob as she called him.”
Besides her family’s activities of camping, swimming and boating, Billie Bob loved playing tennis, which she continued through college and throughout her adult life. Billie Bob says that this wide variety of fitness and sporting pursuits throughout her life has made her life rich with adventure and full of great memories, helping her celebrate her longevity each day.
Billie Bob attended a private girls’ college preparatory boarding school outside of Philadelphia, then went to Washington Seminary, a two-year women’s college in Atlanta (Westminster School today). At the seminary, she began her studies with an interest in physical education and soon became president of the athletic association, scheduling sports events such as basketball and golf. But, her interest also turned to early childhood studies, which later led her to a fulfilling career.
Embraced by her schoolmates at the Atlanta college, Billie Bob was quite surprised when she received a formal invitation to join them as an official Atlanta debutante. When her parents saw how much it meant to her, they agreed to support her. The prestige was not without cost, however, and she would have to choose between becoming a debutant or finishing her last year of college.
“It was such an honor. I was the first girl ever from outside of Atlanta to be invited, and I just couldn’t turn it down,” Billie Bob explained. “And, I’ll never forget my mother’s advice: She told me to remember that I was from a small town that I represented and I had to always be myself no matter where I went in life,” a lesson she has handed down to her daughter and granddaughter.
When she later returned home to help with the family hotel, Billie Bob began flying lessons at her father’s prompting. He traveled around the state and thought it would be a good idea if his daughter could fly him rather than driving. Billie Bob mastered 40-hours of training in a single-engine Ercoupe two-seater and received her pilot’s license in in 1946.
Around that same time, she also met her husband, Lucien Sykes who received a purple heart serving in the army in World War II during the invasion of Normandy. He had begun staying at the family hotel while she was away for college and her parents liked him. Her mother, breaking dating protocol of the time, encouraged a reluctant Billie Bob to invite him out to a movie. They married eight months later and made Gainesville their new home when Lucien took a job with Florida Rock Industries.
As their family grew, their daughter, Pat recalled how she and her siblings were active in sports throughout their school years. In high school, her older brother played baseball and she joined gymnastics and participated in a summer track and field camp sponsored by the University of Florida. Pat also discovered her love of jazz and ballet at Gainesville’s June Green dance studio.
With her children engaged in school and sports activities, Billy Bob pursued her love and interest in early childhood education, accepting a teaching position at First Presbyterian Preschool. She continued working there for the next 25 years preparing 4-year-olds for kindergarten.
After high school, Pat began her 40-year career in finance, working her way up from a savings and loan by attending Santa Fe College at night and completing banking certificate programs through the Institute of Financial Education. She worked for 17 years at Barnett Bank, which later became Bank of America. Today she manages the TD Bank Tower Road branch as the assistant vice president.
Pat passed along her family’s fitness tradition and family secret to longevity, encouraging her own son and daughter to discover their favorite sports. As a single mom, Pat taught her children that whatever you decide to do, you should give 100 percent. She also instilled upon them another important value; being self-sufficient. Meagan’s older brother pursued basketball, soccer and tennis.
At her brother’s birthday party held at the YMCA when Meagan was only three years old, she climbed on the gymnastics bars just to play around. One of the trainers noticed her exceptional talent and agility and remarked about it. Her talent recognized, Meagan began formal gymnastics training at age four, which became rigorous over the next 10 years with practices from 5 to 7 a.m. before school and sometimes as late as 9 p.m. after school. Pat recalls her family’s constant support during those years.
“We all took turns getting Meagan from school to practices, and I really relied on my mother and father’s help while I was at work.”
Pat said. “The family travelled everywhere with Meagan as she competed and trained for Junior Olympics.”
Along with her gymnastics training, Meagan also took ballet classes to help with grace and performance. Like her mother, she discovered a passion for dance. By the time she turned 14, Meagan felt that gymnastics was taking too much of a toll on her and she was losing the joy that it once held for her.
Resilience was another attribute passed down through the generations. After losing her husband in 2000, Billy Bob welcomed camaraderie and more activity into her life with a new passion and pursued fitness and longevity with new vigor. For Meagan, her family-bred resilience meant it was time to move on from gymnastics. Her decision presented a challenge for not only her, but also also for her family who had long supported and championed her years of work and dedication to gymnastics. With her family behind her, she was ready to shift her focus more to ballet and contemporary dance at Cameron Dance Center in Haile Village Center.
As she became more active in dance classes and performances, Meagan realized that she was coming into dance much later than other girls who had been training from age four. However, the physical and mental challenges of ballet training and in learning complicated routines was very similar to the training she had in gymnastics. Since middle school Meagan has performed in “Cinderella” and even danced the part of Dorothy in the studio’s production of “The Wiz” in 2009. Each year, she also joins the company to dance in “Thriller” during the Haile Village Oktoberfest celebration.
By the end of high school, Meagan decided it was time to explore dance at a professional level and traveled to New York City for workshops and dance clinics at the Joffrey Ballet School and Parsons Dance Company for modern dance. Pat accompanied her on the trips early on as she learned to navigate the city, and even went to some auditions for parts as a movie extra.
Meagan, now 27, kept her mother’s advice of giving 100 percent and becoming self-sufficient close to heart. She graduated from the Cardiovascular Technology Program at Santa Fe College and works in cardiovascular ultrasound for UF Health Shands Hospital. She sees her career path in health care and she is content to keep her joy of dancing for recreation and fitness. She still goes to the gym three days a week for light cardio work out and sauna, and goes to a barre and dance studio three days a week.
It’s Meagan’s turn now to support her mom’s interest in running. The two completed the Gator Gallup last fall during UF’s homecoming celebration, and Pat placed 12th in last year’s St. Augustine Bridge of Lions 5K race, where she had her family cheering her on.
Over the generations, the family that seems to have uncovered the secret to longevity has experienced a richer life, full of challenges and fun. They also enjoy recreational watersports in St. Augustine, where Pat grew up surfing and where her children learned to water ski with their grandparents on the Intracoastal Waterway. And according to Billie Bob, the ultimate fitness and longevity guru, slalom is the only way to ski.