When Huston Sheppard enrolled as the first student in Gaston College’s new Health and Fitness Science program in 2011, he already was running his own part-time fitness business.
But the former long-haul truck driver, who’d survived two heart attacks and overcome addictions, wanted to expand his knowledge in a field he was passionate about.
In his late 50s, Sheppard was the oldest student in the class. While there, he designed and led an original health and exercise program for personnel at the Gastonia Fire Department.
Fitness turned his life around, and he often shares the story of how that happened. “It’s about how I traveled the bad road to get to the good road,” he said. “I was left here because the good Lord had something special for me to do.”
Sheppard, 59, a certified fitness trainer who works for the Gastonia Parks and Recreation Department, is developing an ongoing fitness program designed specifically for fire, police and emergency employees in the city and county. He hopes to market the program to government organizations whose employees perform such tasks as loading patients into ambulances and dragging fire hoses.
But his journey to this point has been a long one. After graduating from Bessemer City High School in 1972, he spent four years in the Army and then worked as a machinist. In the late 1980s, he started driving a truck.
“It was over the road, all 50 states,” said Sheppard, who’d gotten married by then. “Life on the road was kind of tough and lonely.”
Years earlier, he’d started working out regularly and tried to keep it up. At truck stops, he jogged a few miles before meals and carried healthy snacks with him.
But the good habits gradually slipped away, replaced by the bad. Cigars came first; then cocaine.
“I knew my lifestyle had to change for the better,” Sheppard said. “I wasn’t raised to do crazy stuff like that.”
A wakeup call came in 1997, when he had a near-fatal heart attack. Sheppard gave up cigars but stayed on cocaine for three months after leaving the hospital.
“Then I prayed to God to take the taste of cocaine out of my mouth,” Sheppard said. “And since 1997, I’ve never picked it up.”
Sheppard worked at furniture factory, the Kings Mountain YMCA and Gastonia Central YMCA. The YMCA connections and going to cardiac rehab rekindled his interest in fitness.
Staying in shape became a passion. By 2004 he had the qualifications to open a fitness training business – Huston’s Xtreme Training Systems. A year later, he suffered a second heart attack and had five stents installed, for a total of six.
When Gaston College began its first Health and Fitness Science program, Sheppard was the first student to sign up.
“He brought a lot of insights to his classmates and instructors, too,” said program coordinator/instructor Jacob Surratt. “We were very blessed to have him.”
He felt Sheppard would be a good fit for the program at the Gastonia Fire Department “and we gave him free reign to design it. He made it his own special program. He did a wonderful job.”
Gastonia Deputy Fire Chief William Thompson said physical fitness was already emphasized before the Gaston College program led by Sheppard.
In 1980, as a 52-year-old Gastonia firefighter filled out an incident report shortly after battling a house fire, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Thompson, who joined the Gastonia department in 1987, wanted make sure firefighters were physically fit. He wrote a master’s thesis on the subject and in 2002 the city got a federal grant to put workout equipment, including treadmills, barbells and weights, in every fire station.
Sheppard’s six-month program focused on aerobic activities.
“A lot of the guys would go to his program and then go the gym and continue workouts,” Thompson. “Others who’d been doing nothing were inspired to do better.”
Sheppard hopes he can keep inspiring people to stay fit.
“It’s about quality of life – feeling good for you, your kids and grandkids,” he said. “If I don’t help but one person, my job is done.”
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