March 23, 1981 12:00 PM

Like big government, George Keverian, majority leader of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, just didn’t know how to stop growing. His dirty little secret was eating. “I had terrible food habits,” admits the 49-year-old Democrat. “I would never eat to excess in front of other people, but once in my home, by myself, I would eat from 7 at night to 3 or 4 in the morning. Chinese food, pizza, chocolate chip cookies, sandwiches, fruit—just a continuing consumption of calories.” By early last year Keverian’s cravings had taken their toll. He was the Goodyear blimp of Massachusetts politics, weighing in at an embarrassing 419 pounds.

A year later, heroically, the proverbial thin man has made his escape from Keverian’s once-blubbery self. In less than 14 months he has stripped 255 pounds from his 5’11” frame, reducing his waistline by 24 inches and emerging as the model of slimness only old friends remembered.

The son of Armenian immigrants, the incredible shrinking legislator had been a sprinter at Everett (Mass.) High School and played intramural sports while at Harvard. But after graduation he became aware of a problem. “At first it was 10 or 20 pounds, then 30 or 40,” he says. Limiting himself to hard-boiled eggs and an apple a day, he trimmed off 50 pounds in the last three months of a hitch in the Army, and in 1966 was elected to the first of eight terms in the legislature. As his reputation grew, so did his girth. In 1969 he joined a Weight Watchers program and went from 360 pounds to 220 in 14 months. Then, gradually, he regained all he had lost and more.

Though Keverian’s ballooning figure proved no impediment to political success—he was chosen majority leader in 1978—it had a crushing effect on his self-esteem. An ardent sports fan, he stayed away from Boston Garden and Fenway Park because he couldn’t fit into a seat. He even refused to fly because he was too humiliated to use the necessary seat belt extension. Self-deprecatingly humorous when speaking in public (“I’d ask if people could see me behind the podium”), he was increasingly reluctant to face his peers. “My private feeling was, ‘How could anyone respect someone like me?’ ” he recalls. “I thought, ‘If I walk around like some kind of freak, how can people take me seriously?’ ”

His painful self-consciousness plus a strong sense of family responsibility (his father died in 1957, and his mother has long been in fragile health) combined to keep him single, and in some ways a recluse. Keverian even avoided his high school reunions. “You don’t want to meet people who haven’t seen you in years,” he explains. “They say things like, ‘Oh my God, what happened to you?’ It’s upsetting.”

Ultimately Keverian was moved to action by a threat to his health. He began having difficulty staying awake. “I was fighting sleep at my desk, driving and just talking to people,” he says. “Then one evening I went shopping and fell asleep in my car in a parking lot. I woke up freezing and disoriented.” Hospitalized by his doctor, Keverian was told his weighted-down lungs couldn’t provide enough oxygen to keep him awake. Soon afterward he saw a newspaper photo of a man who had lost 100 pounds during a fast supervised by doctors at an Obesity and Risk Factor clinic in Brookline, Mass. Desperate, Keverian signed up for some of the same.

For 11 months, under an ORF program similar to the one Larry Hagman used to pare 35 pounds off J.R. Ewing’s jowls last year, Keverian was limited to just five 60-calorie packets a day of a sugar-and-protein compound. Later, as he approached his optimum weight of 180 pounds, he was restricted to three packets plus one 1,500-calorie meal daily. He is currently on a maintenance program of calorie counting and clinical visits, bolstered by psychological counseling to discourage a relapse. Observes Dr. Harold Solomon, director of the Boston ORF program: “George is a spectacularly talented, honest person. It’s very unlikely he will fail.” As for Keverian, he is taking renewed pleasure in his public appearance and is already being mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 1982. Inevitably, many other victims of obesity have asked him for advice about losing weight. “I tell them it’s difficult,” says Keverian fervently, “but it’s going to save their lives the way it has mine.”

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