In July of 2000, Lewis and Rama Patterson held the first gathering of the Westchase Seniors group.
The idea for the group was born out of a simple inquiry. At the time, the Pattersons were still relatively new to retirement and to life in Florida.
After an exhaustive search for the perfect place to spend their Golden Years, the Texas natives moved to Westchase in November of 1998 by way of Washington D.C., where Lewis worked for the Department of Defense and Rama worked for U.S. Air. The home they purchased in the Fords had previously served as a model home.
Not ones to sit idle in retirement, it wasn’t long before they were looking for ways to get involved. Rama saw a mention of the Westchase Welcome Committee in the WOW and realized no one had stopped by to welcome them. She reached out to then publisher Victoria Tully, who informed her the community was struggling to find volunteers. Rama stepped up to co-chair the Village Volunteers and help keep the Welcome Committee alive in Westchase.
It was during her work with the Welcome Committee that Rama had a resident inquire if there was a group for seniors in Westchase. “When I shared that with Lewis he said, ‘Well, there ought to be!’” Rama said. “And then he went into action.”
The Pattersons set out to create a group that would allow residents aged 50 and up to connect with fellow retirees that had common interests. They placed an ad in the June 2000 issue of the WOW announcing a July meeting at the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center. The ad listed several hobbies – everything from golf to gardening to travel – and respondents were asked to circle the items that interested them. When the meeting date rolled around, Lewis printed off a sign-up sheet with 12 lines. “We went to the car and I said, ‘I don’t know if anyone is going to show up, but what if more than 12 people show up?’” he said. “So, I made another copy of the sign-up sheet.”
Fifty-four people showed up and they filled the front and back of both sheets.
The original intent, according to Lewis, was simply to gather everyone’s contact information and list of hobbies. Lewis would then compile the list and share it with the group so that those with common interests could connect.
“At the end of the meeting, they asked, ‘What are we going to next month?’” Lewis said. Caught off guard, he replied, “Come back here next month and we’ll have a potluck.”
One hundred and ten people showed up at that potluck.
It became clear to the Pattersons that the group wanted a monthly gathering. In the early years, they continued to meet at the Swim and Tennis Center, but also started venturing out to local restaurants and museums. Lewis brought in speakers to educate the group on everything from nutrition to finances to using a cell phone. At one point he brought in a speaker to discuss making final arrangements. “They didn’t like that very much!” Lewis said with a laugh.
After a year of alternating between fun and education, the group made it clear they wanted the fun, so the Pattersons began planning more outings. They coordinated with Dimmitt Cadillac to provide bus transportation for longer-range trips like Bok Tower and the Florida Air Museum. One couple stepped up and chartered a bus to take the group on a mystery dinner outing that landed them at a steakhouse in Plant City. Lewis and Rama began testing out new restaurants and venues that could accommodate the growing group. They also began coordinating a carpool for those members who no longer drove.
Over the past 23 years (minus the pandemic years), the group has been to countless restaurants and museums, dinner theaters, movies and local attractions. More recently, the Pattersons have begun encouraging other members to help facilitate the outings. Not only does this give them a break from planning; it also allows other members to share their favorite spots with the group. “There’s no pressure to go to anything,” Lewis explained. “You attend what you want to attend and you pay your way for the outings that have a fee.”
The Group’s Impact on the Community
The Westchase Seniors group is about much more than monthly outings; it is a source of camaraderie and support, laughter and commiseration. Nowhere is this more evident than at the group’s Tuesday Morning Coffees at the Westchase McDonald’s. The seniors were gracious enough to invite the WOW to sit in recently.
The group nearly fills the McDonald’s dining room – the women stretched across a bank of booths and the men clustered at nearby tables. Founding member Bette Vance was instrumental in launching the coffee meet ups that were originally held at the Burger King on Sheldon Road. Bette (who introduced herself as “Bette Vance who used to dance”) said the inspiration came from the Mitch Albom classic, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” hence the choice to meet on Tuesdays. Twenty-three years later, Bette continues to be grateful for the group. “We are so blessed to have Lewis and Rama. They keep the group together,” she said. “Coming here helps keep us young!”
Bette turned 91 years young on May 22.
Original member Anita Steinfeld praised the group for what it offers the men. “It was so fantastic for my husband,” she said, adding that it isn’t that common to find groups that give men the chance to just sit and socialize. “It’s so important.”
While her husband has passed, Anita continues to be a regular at the weekly meet ups and monthly outings, and especially enjoys the annual Holiday Dinner at Catch Twenty-Three.
Relative newcomer Bob Marcus, who moved to the Westchase area to be closer to family after his wife passed away, agreed with Anita’s observation about the role the group plays for men. “Men don’t talk about their emotions,” Bob said. “When women lose their husbands, other women surround them, they raise them up. Men don’t do that,” he said, adding that the seniors group has been a tremendous source of support.
Judy Lobe, who moved to Westchase from Virginia four years ago with husband Doug, was introduced to the Westchase Seniors by neighbors Judy and Pete Daniher and credits the group for making them feel welcome in the community.
And Barbara Broccoli, who originally joined the group in 2017, loves the group so much, she moved back to Westchase just to rejoin. In 2022, Barbara moved to Virginia to be closer to her daughter and quickly realized groups like the Westchase Seniors aren’t always easy to find. “I was ready to go stand outside the McDonald’s on the corner to see if anyone wanted to meet up for coffee,” Barbara said.
Instead, she packed up her things and returned to Tampa in early 2023, where the Westchase Seniors welcomed her with open arms.
It is easy to see why the group continues to flourish after 23 years. Connections with those at a similar phase in life are always important. Those connections are clear in this group, where the conversations flow with ease and it is difficult to differentiate newcomers from long-standing members.
For Marion Thompson, a member for 11 years, the beauty of the group is that the “before” doesn’t really matter. While family and past careers make their way into the conversation, for the most part the discussions are rooted in the present. Marion added that she enjoys spending time with her Westchase neighbors who are younger, but the seniors group is what keeps her grounded. “You have to hang out with people your own age occasionally to appreciate your own aches and pains,” she said.
And aches and pains do come up, but they are just a part of the conversation. Ken Millman, who joined the group with wife Diana 9 years ago, pointed out that with the collective experience and knowledge of this diverse group, you’re bound to find the answer to any issue you’re facing – from a problem with your A/C to a question about knee replacement. “Someone will have the answer,” Ken said.
What Lewis and Rama started 23 years ago has blossomed into a network of steadfast friends that continues to grow. Monthly outings and weekly coffees have branched off into groups that gather for tone and stretch class at the Westchase Rec followed by coffee at the Grind, burger nights at Catch Twenty-Three and breakfast gatherings at Ellie’s Restaurant. There are members that catch movies together… or travel across the country together.
They are drawn together by their age, but not defined by their age. “We don’t talk like a bunch of old people, do we?” Doug Lobe said with a laugh.
“Age is just a number,” added Jose Rios, who joined the group 14 years ago with wife Nevenka. “It might be a big number, but it’s just a number.”
As new members join and others move away, Lewis continues to update the Westchase Seniors Group Directory that he started from those initial sign-up sheets 23 years ago. At current count, there are 228 members. The Westchase Seniors group is now open to anyone age 55 and up in Westchase and the surrounding area. And, as Lewis concludes the articles he submits to the WOW each month, “It only costs a smile to join, and the dues are just as cheap.”
Editor’s note: I would like to thank Lewis and Rama for inviting me into their home and for allowing me to crash the group’s Tuesday Morning Coffees. Read more about the Westchase Seniors in their article on page 50 of this issue.