When Debra Williams was growing up in West Philadelphia and later Wynnefield, her parents made it clear that going to college was mandatory. She did that and then some, proving along the way that a partnership between the body and mind is essential to achieving success, both physical and intellectual.
Her parents were from South Carolina, where her father, Angelo, finished the eighth grade. In Philadelphia, he went to night school and earned his GED, and after working at a gas station, landed a job as a clerk with the IRS. Her mother, Grace, attended a junior college in South Carolina, where she earned an associate's degree. In Philadelphia, she worked as a supermarket cashier. Both parents had bigger and better things in mind for their daughter.
At Overbrook High School, Williams had solid grades and gained admission to Peirce College, where she took the legal secretarial program and earned an associate's degree. After a variety of jobs (retail sales, assistant to a loan officer in a bank), she was hired as an administrative assistant at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.
She began the job in August 1983 and a month later was auditing a class in an effort to qualify for Penn's College of General Studies and a chance to earn a bachelor's degree. She needed a B or better to make the cut, and she succeeded. Ten years later, while working full time as office manager at Annenberg and attending class at night, she received her bachelor's degree in the humanities. Encouraged by her boss, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, then dean of the school and a professor of communication, she continued her academic endeavors. Four years later, she was awarded a master's degree in English literature.
At this point, she was ready to take a break.
Between full-time work and part-time school, "I felt like I didn't have a life," Williams says. "My eating habits were horrible. I was sitting all the time and weighed almost 200 pounds. I was so stressed out I'd eat a whole pizza for dinner or a big bag of chips for a snack."
When she was a student at Overbrook, Williams, who is 5-foot-8, was a lithe 125 pounds. Now, seeing photos of herself taken at a family reunion, she wept.
"I had an image of myself as someone thin, but the camera doesn't lie. I felt like crap."
She had to buy larger, looser-fitting clothes, and she couldn't walk up stairs without breathing hard.
In 1999, Williams went to see her doctor for a routine physical. She was told that her cholesterol was dangerously high and that she had borderline high blood pressure. It was not a complete surprise. High blood pressure plagued both her parents, and her mother had died of a stroke in 1993, before seeing her daughter graduate from Penn.
Her doctor was about to write a prescription for blood-pressure medication when Williams balked. She was leery of medication because of side effects. Instead, she asked her doctor to give her two months to reform.
With characteristic determination, Williams joined the 12th Street Gym and began showing up for Saturday-morning exercise classes conducted by Sisters in Shape, which caters to African American women. She also took other exercise classes during the week and hired a personal trainer, Sabrina Collins, who guided not only her fitness efforts but also her dietary choices. Williams stopped eating junk food.
"From the first session, everything had to be explained," says Collins, a personal trainer who owns and operates Pilates on Camac in Center City. "She was the first client I ever had who was interested in everything we did. I had to explain every biceps curl, every triceps kickback, every lunge, every squat.
"She was interested in not just the exercises themselves but also why and how is this going to help me lose weight or lower my blood pressure. She needed to see how this thing is going to work. I quickly realized that everything for her is based on the intellect and has to make sense."
After two months, Williams had lost six pounds, and her blood pressure had dropped. To ensure that she was progressing in a healthy direction, she continued visiting her doctor every two months for a year, then every four months the following year. After two years, she had shed 50 pounds. Now she had to buy new clothes yet again, but this time it was a joy ("the best part for a woman"), and she could fit into her shoes, including the high heels she loves.
Rejuvenated by reclaiming her body, surging with fresh energy, Williams in 2002 decided to climb the academic summit by pursuing a doctorate. By this time, she had two gym memberships, including one at Penn's David Pottruck Health and Fitness Center. She was spinning, weightlifting with a trainer, and, on her own, taking aerobics and yoga classes. In spinning class, she was surprised by her ability to "hang with" the much younger undergraduates. She began wondering how fit they were, which led to her doctoral focus of inquiry, culminating in a dissertation about physical education at the college level.
Williams received her Ed.D. in 2010. During that eight-year journey, her weight fluctuated, but she knew how to control it through exercise and proper nutrition. She began teaching spinning, aerobics, and weight training, and launched her own personal training business, SMART Fitness Personal Training, which she operates out of her home in Overbrook.
"People always want to know how I did it," says Williams, who is 57 and director of special events at Annenberg. "It's not easy, but it really works. I feel I'm ready to make a difference, to make other people feel the way I feel. My goal is to target African American clients. We're the ones whose numbers are going off the charts."
Jamieson, now director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has little doubt that Williams will succeed. "Debra is a natural leader," she says, "who meets the high goals she sets for herself with good humor, grace, and a level of determination that invites others to set and meet their own goals."
For her part, Williams is convinced that caring for her body through exercise enabled her to propel her mind to new heights and challenges.
"I don't think I could have done it without it," Williams says. "Back in school, fitness allowed me to take it to the next level. I'm the first in my family to get a doctorate. I had to finish. It felt natural, like something I was meant to do."
Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.