100 Years of Junior: Walking on the Sunny Side of the Street
By Cassie Jacoby

Mary Frances “Junior” Whittinghill reveals secrets for living a long life.

This is the year of Junior. Celebrations are already underway for the 100th birthday of one of Winter Haven’s favorite grande dames, Mary Frances “Junior” Whittinghill. Preceding her big day on Monday, Aug. 13, Junior’s birthday party at the Winter Haven Garden Center will be a blowout complete with Junior singing a favorite song for family and friends arriving from all over the world.

“Who wants to be 100? A 99-year-old,” jokes Junior, who says laughter is the best medicine. “I came from a laughing family. We all love one another. It’s unusual, but I demand that they all get along.”

Live in the moment, make every second count, never mince words and always have a positive attitude. Those are just a few of the secrets to Junior’s longevity. Plus, a 2 ounce shot of Dewar’s Scotch every day. Junior loves baking a pecan pie in the kitchen she calls her play pen, plus playing the piano, she says, “for my own enjoyment.”

Junior is religious about knitting with her friends of all ages at Four Purls Yarn Shop in downtown Winter Haven every Tuesday. Bridge is every Wednesday, and many other days are spent dining out with friends. “Keeping busy keeps me young,” says Junior.

“All my friends are young because most of my old friends are dead,” says Junior, who especially misses Mrs. William “Eunie” Fuller. “I use one of her canes to steady my walking.” Dancing is how Junior cures the blues when she grieves the loss of friends and her son Larry, editor of the Robinson Daily News, who died in 2008 at age 59. “I put on Tony Bennett and dance around to make myself feel better.” Although not exactly dancing shoes, Junior cherishes the size 7.5 Chanel shoes she inherited, from another beloved friend, Marjorie, Gene Leedy’s late wife, who wore the same size shoe as Junior.

One of her dearest friends, Gene Leedy is the Mid-Century Modern architect who designed her Drexel Avenue home she calls her “happy house.”

Gene lives across the street and designed the homes of other neighbors who all keep a close eye on Junior, especially her closest friend Sheila Leavey, whom she befriended when they were neighbors at Grenelefe Golf and Tennis Resort in Haines City.

“She was the first to purchase a Gene Leedy house and did a major renovation that took more than a year. She’s my ‘are you alright?’ partner,” says Leavey, who checks in on Junior everyday.

“We’re partners in crime,” Leavey says with a smile. “We’re put on this earth to help each other. (Checking in on Junior every day) is not a burden in any way, shape or form. That’s what it’s all about.”

Other neighbors who share Junior’s love of their Gene Leedy homes are Dr. Tim Howell, retired Gessler Clinic gynecologist, and his wife Kathy; Rowdy Gaines’ mother, Jettie; and Judi Francis and Roy Sloan. All invite her to dinners and parties frequently. Another neighbor, Pam, is her secretary.

Junior loves visiting her surviving son, Dr. Wood Van Lewis, an ER physician and cancer specialist in New Mexico with a farm outside Chicago where they camp in his Air Stream. “How many people have a 75-year-old son?” she says. “Wood promised he would prop me up to make it to 100 so we could have a big blow out for my centennial celebration.”

Next to her family of six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren who call her “GranFran,” Junior counts her blessings for her many friends who call her “Sunshine.” Much like her favorite song, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” they all say: “A day without Junior is like a day without sunshine.”

Maintaining her weight at 125 pounds, few can believe her real age. “I eat whatever I want, but keep everything in moderation. I always have breakfast with two cups of coffee, grits, apricot jam and real butter,” she says.

With two computers in her office and kitchen, she reads news in print and online, and checks out Facebook to stay in touch with her family along with friends in London and France, Andrew and Ian, whose young son, Nathan, is especially close to her.

So, just how did she get her nickname, ‘Junior?’

“My late husband, Frank Whittinghill Jr., decided my name was too long. ‘I’m cutting Junior off my name and giving it to you,’ she recalls him saying. “When he became ill, we moved from Robinson, Ill. to Grenelefe because he loved to play golf. After he died I moved to Drexel, where I plan to live happily ever after.”