3 Generations of Fitness
Meet Billie Bob Sykes and Pat and Meagan Massimillo, a family whose legacy is all about pushing boundaries and inspiring others.
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 lifestyles, this Gainesville family appears to have already unlocked the secret of health, fitness and longevity over generations. Their secret formula for success 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 thing that everyone can do to improve their health.
Turning 92 in March, Billie Bob is a gym regular who attends fitness classes several times a week, and then stays on during the day to greet and encourage other seniors to reach their fitness goals. A nametag identifies her as ‘Hostess’ at Gainesville Health & Fitness Center, where she rotates between its three facilities.
Born in the tiny town of Bainbridge, Georgia, about 35 miles northwest of Tallahassee, Billy Bob’s parents owned the three- story Bond-Aire hotel, where the family lived on the top floor. It was the family’s cook, whom they called Granny, that suggested a name for the couple’s new 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 activities of camping, swimming and boating, Billie Bob loved playing tennis, which she continued through college and beyond.
She 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.”
When she later returned home to help with her family’s 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. She mastered 40-hours of training in a single-engine Ercoupe two-seater and received her pilot’s license in in 1946.
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, taking 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, encouraging her own son and daughter to discover their favorite sports activities. As a single mom, she taught her children that whatever you decide to do, you should give 100 percent. She also instilled upon them another important value of 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 and one of the trainers noticed her exceptional talent and agility. She 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 the 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 key passed down through the generations. It led Billy Bob to becoming active at the gym after Lucien passed away in 2000. For Meagan, it was deciding 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. The physical and mental challenges in training and learning complicated routines, though, were very similar to the training she had in gymnastics. Since middle school she has performed in “Cinderella” and even danced the part of Dorothy in the studio’s production of “The Wiz” in 2009. Every year, she also joins the company to dance in “Thriller” at 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 also has enjoyed recreational watersports in St. Augustine, where Pat grew up surfing and her children learned to water ski with their grandparents on the Intracoastal Waterway. And according to Billie Bob, slalom is the only way to ski.