On a bright winter morning a group of about 20 seniors assembles at the north end of Oceanfront Park in Jacksonville Beach. There’s a lot of highly animated conversation as they set aside jackets and belongings. Finally, they spread out in deference to social distancing conventions.
Suddenly, a petit, cheerful, energetic woman appears at the front of the group and calls it to order. She touches the screen on her smart phone and disco music emanates from a small Bluetooth-equipped speaker nearby.
Immediately, she launches into a series of stretching moves, repeating each several times before calling out changes in the routine. The group enthusiastically strives to keep up. Their respect for the woman is manifest, perhaps because she herself is a senior who has survived a lifetime of ups and downs.
Perhaps because, at 96, Joan Taylor has demonstrated that age is not automatically a barrier.
“This lady’s a trooper,” said Ellen Foley, a member of the group since 2017. “She’s a strong woman, and she just sets the pace. You want to just stay with her.”
Taylor said people are often surprised when they learn that she’s a nonagenarian. They sometimes ask what her secret is.
“Well, I don’t have a secret,” she responds, though she concedes that she doesn’t eat junk food and enjoys exercise. She also speculates that there may be a genetic component; other women in her family tree led long lives.
Whether genes or lifestyle, one thing is clear: Taylor’s energy rivals that of someone several decades her junior.
She has been a member of the fitness group since the 1980s when Ponte Vedra resident Betty Pierce was leading it at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Over the years, the group has had to move to different venues, but a few members have stayed with it all along, including Taylor.
“I joined the group, and I haven’t left since,” she said.
Today, she leads the group’s exercise sessions three days a week. And when the last exercise is done and everyone in the group disperses, she returns to her Pablo Towers apartment – where she does sit-ups and leg lifts.
The other members of the group are inspired by Taylor’s spirited tenacity, but they are also inspired by the story of her life.
Born in London, England, Taylor was 15 when World War II broke out. She was among the students who were separated from their families in September 1939 and evacuated by train. No bombs had fallen yet, but the authorities weren’t taking any chances.
“They wanted (children) out of London,” Taylor said. “They still had memories of the First World War, I guess, and the use of gas and all that.”
A family in the southern English city of Eastbourn took the young woman in. She’d never met them before, but they accommodated her and a classmate, kept them fed and looked after them.
Before long, however, she wanted to return home. After all, there’d been no bombings. Finally, at Christmastime, she went back to London.
And that’s where she was during the Blitz.
Beginning in September 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed the city mercilessly over a period of 57 days.
The young woman joined other Londoners who slept in air raid shelters.
“You’d take your bedding and blankets,” Taylor recalled. “We were under this big department store. They had a basement, and just cement floors.”
Each morning, after the all-clear was given, she’d go out to see if her home was still standing.
“I used to turn the corner and – ‘whew!’ – the house was still there!” she recalled.
Though the bombings typically happened at night, that wasn’t always the case. Taylor said that sometimes planes flew over in daylight to drop bombs and set fires that would light the way for the evening’s attackers.
Despite all this, life went on. Taylor never returned to school, deciding instead to seek work.
“There weren’t many things for women to do in those days,” she said. “You were a typist, a secretary or a nurse or something like that. I liked fiddling with hair and make-up and stuff, so I thought: Well, I’d like to be a hairdresser.”
She became an apprentice at a “very high-class” salon near Victoria Station. She would sweep up hair, bring people tea and hand bobby pins and curlers to the hairdresser. At lunchtime, she would walk to Buckingham Palace, which was nearby.
Then, one morning in 1941, she took the bus to work only to find the salon was gone.
“They’d been bombed overnight!” she said.
Marriage and emigration
The former Joan Fullwood met Douglas Taylor at a dance in 1944. He was a soldier in the Canadian army and was stationed in England. They took a liking to one another, and what started with a dance blossomed into a serious relationship.
Soon, however, the young artilleryman was sent to fight in Sicily, but their romance grew in the letters they posted.
“We decided to get married when he came home,” she said.
The war was only over for a few days when he arrived at her door, surprising her.
They were wed that same month because he was to return to Canada soon. Preparations had to be made quickly, and her church had to waive the traditional posting of the banns, which would have delayed the nuptials by weeks.
Because clothing and food were being rationed, the bride’s wedding dress was borrowed, and the neighbors pooled their food rations to make a wedding cake.
Before long, the groom was sent back to Canada, but his new wife had to remain in England for a brief time because she was expecting a baby and special arrangements had to be made.
Eventually, she said goodbye to her family for the second time in her young life, and she boarded a hospital ship departing from Liverpool.
The transatlantic passage was not exactly a luxury cruise, seasickness being augmented by pregnancy.
“We hadn’t even moved out of the dock, and I was sick,” Taylor recalled.
The conditions were difficult, as well. There were 30 women in a single room. They were all either pregnant or new mothers.
The trip to Canada took 10 days, finally arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was another two days by train to Toronto, where Joan Taylor was to meet her husband’s family.
Upon her arrival, her name was called out so that her party would know she was there. But, at first, no one responded.
She had heard stories of English brides traveling overseas to join their husbands only to find themselves abandoned. That husbands turned up for the young women standing near her only added to her anxiety.
“I thought: This is it; I’m stranded,” she recalled.
But everything turned out all right. Douglas Taylor soon appeared after struggling to get through the thick crowd.
Moving to the States
The Taylors lived in Canada for the next 15 years, and the couple had three sons. Joan Taylor was a stay-at-home mom but would occasionally take Christmas work at one of the large Toronto department stores, Eaton’s or Simpson’s.
Then, in 1961, the family moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, where Joan Taylor went to work in the purchasing department of Zayre Corp. She remained employed there for 15 years.
“My husband, unfortunately, got very ill,” she said. “He had heart trouble.”
Douglas Taylor died in 1979.
The following year, Joan Taylor moved to Neptune Beach, where she had some very good friends, and bought a house.
And that’s where she was when a friend suggested she join Betty Pierce’s exercise group.
On the move
The group started at Our Lady Star of the Sea but had to move when the church needed the space for a school. At first, the group went to St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Jacksonville Beach, but then due to concerns over insurance, it moved again to Community Presbyterian Church in Atlantic Beach.
In 2004, Joan Taylor sold her house to one of her sons and moved into Pablo Towers, a 16-story apartment complex in Jacksonville Beach designed specifically for seniors. Before long, she was asked to start an exercise group there.
So, the group found a new home, a convenient one for Taylor.
“It was great at Pablo Towers,” she said. “It was great for me. I didn’t even have to get in the car and go anywhere.”
Still, the years that followed were not always easy. Taylor survived breast cancer in 2006 and later lost an adult son to leukemia.
Throughout it all, the exercise group provided not just a shared interest in fitness, but also a critical social venue. They had a Christmas party every year at Marsh Landing and went on picnics and other activities together.
“We’ve always been a real tight group,” said Taylor. “Very friendly, loving people.”
Then, in 2020, the coronavirus hit and threatened to put an end to the group’s gatherings. How could people social distance while exercising indoors?
So, Taylor had an idea. People could space out and still exercise as a group at nearby Oceanfront Park. Even COVID-19 could not stop the group from keeping fit and seeing their friends.
“This is good,” said Taylor. “Everybody’s really happy here.”
And Taylor, who admits she experiences the aches and pains of arthritis, is not about to curtail her active lifestyle.
“I’m going to keep going as long as I can,” she said.
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