Wesley Chapel: 9-11 survivor finds solace in Seven Oaks
After putting off moving to Florida for years, the dramatic attack put everything in perspective for one couple, and they've never been happier.
By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published April 30, 2004
WESLEY CHAPEL - Bill and Reta Parsons tried and tried - and then tried again - to move to Florida.
Finally, they gave up. At least until 2006.
That was the year Reta, a civilian employee at the Pentagon, was supposed to retire.
Her repeated requests for a transfer to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa just didn't happen, something with which she finally made peace.
Little did she know fate had its own unchecked plan.
"Now I see how it was all supposed to work," she says.
On Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers crashed a passenger jet into the Pentagon, two corridors over from the office where Reta worked.
Running from the building, she suffered a heart attack.
Running from the building, she also knew life had changed forever. The tragedy led the Parsonses, both 58, to Florida much sooner than they expected. It was a logical choice.
Bill was already retired from the Air Force. And after the heart attack, Reta received an early medical retirement.
They wanted out of the intensely crowded Washington, D.C., area. They also wanted to be closer to their two grown children who had already moved to Florida several years before.
What they didn't expect was that they would all end up living within a few blocks of each other in Seven Oaks, a 4,000-home community off State Road 56 between Interstate 75 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
Two things brought the Parsonses to the development that has set aside more than half its acreage for conservation areas, upland habitats, parks and common areas: They genuinely wanted an Arthur Rutenberg home, and they fell madly in love with their lot.
And who wouldn't love the lot? On a breezy April afternoon, the couple lead a visitor out onto their custom-screened porch - designed for maximum roominess and privacy.
"We just had a big family canasta game out here over the weekend," Reta says.
The view is, well, classic Giverny meets west-central Florida.
Monet would have loved it. A pond ringed with water lilies and lavender flowers meanders in front of a backdrop of oaks, palms and magnolias - all protected conservation acreage. The windows in the front of the house look out at a small, natural park. The Parsonses see sandhill cranes almost every day.
"Once when I opened the front door, one was standing there like he wanted to come in," Bill says.
High school sweethearts, Bill and Reta grew up in Macon, Ga. Reta collects all things peach: peach cookie jars, candles and ceramics. Bill keeps other reminders of home such as a picture snapped with former president Jimmy Carter, a fellow Georgia native.
Bill, who spent 32 years in the Air Force working in the communications and computer field, wanted his computer in the home's central command area. That's the big living area, the one with the big view "and eventually a big-screen TV," Bill jokes.
Thinking ahead, with the idea that as they age they want to live at home as long as possible, the Parsonses designed the house to be wheelchair-accessible. They also narrowed the garage from a three to two-car garage but kept enough space that cars can maneuver in and out with ease. Normally, Bill says, his garage is immaculate. But their son, Paul, 29, who works for a builder as a new home sales associate for U.S. Home, just sold his townhouse in Carrollwood and is building a house in Seven Oaks. While he waits for construction to wrap up, he's living with mom and dad.
Daughter Rachel Hellbaum, 32, who works for State Farm Insurance in Temple Terrace, also built a house in Seven Oaks in 2003. The family gets together frequently for card games and dinner. On Sundays they attend Idlewild Baptist Church on Bearss Avenue in Tampa. For that they feel grateful.
They still cry when they talk about Sept. 11. Bill remembers watching TV and not knowing if Reta had escaped the Pentagon alive. In fact, a quick-thinking boss piled several employees into his car and got Reta back to the couple's townhouse in Alexandria, Va.
Within an hour or so, they realized the pain in her arm and upper back wasn't a strained muscle, but a heart attack. Bill raced her down a section of interstate that had exits blocked off and little traffic.
That alone is a small miracle.
The other miracle, Reta says, is that the whole family lives so close to each other and in a place so serene.
That was the attraction, she says looking out at the pond and trees.
"We've watched the sandhill cranes do their funny little mating dance," she says. She has also watched them lift their long, gawky frames into flight.
"Don't know how they do it - but they somehow manage," she says.
- My House is a feature that lets readers meet the people and see the homes responsible for Pasco County's housing boom. Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org