The underpants? Those were nothing new.

"I always dressed John like that [in the summer]," says Beth, a garrulous woman with a hearty laugh. "We'd just take him inside afterward and stick him in the shower."

This time, a Sun photographer, Jed Kirschbaum, happened to be in the area looking for a good picture. When he spotted John by the truck, he knew he had something to illustrate the weather in a whimsical way.

"I loved the little guy, having that chocolate melt and not being able to deal with it," he recalls.

He snapped away. John made Page One. The picture caused a sensation.

Scores of readers called The Sun, most to gush over the "adorable" little boy, some to complain that the paper was promoting childhood obesity. At the Boias home, the phone rang off the hook. Then came the letters: good wishes from Ohio, trinkets from Washington state, regards from Guam.

The only negative vibe Beth remembers came when two deejays questioned her motherly judgment during a broadcast. She put John in the car, drove straight over and demanded an apology. She got one, though not, to her chagrin, on the air.

"They missed the spirit of that picture," she says.

Facing obesity

John Boias, of course, was too young to care. When Hudson, understandably proud of his truck's sudden fame, posted the photo on his vehicle, the boy barely noticed.

"I was 3!" Boias says. "I'm sure all I was thinking about then was when I'd get my next Fudgsicle."

When the teasing began, that changed.

Obesity has many causes — heredity, environment, emotional need. Whatever combination of factors was in play, Boias put on weight, to a degree that threatened his health.

Much of it he couldn't help. Big people predominate on both sides of John's family — his father, Tony, has heavy siblings; and Beth and Shelby have had their tangles with size — so it's probably no coincidence he always had a goodly appetite.

"It wasn't just Fudgsicles. I loved anything chocolate: chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, chocolate anything," he says. Cookies, pie and other snacks soon followed. His mother couldn't keep enough Pepsi in the house.

Food became a crutch, and not just for John. When Beth, a restaurant hostess, and Tony, a hairdresser, separated for a time, the stress mounted. Beth found herself snacking a lot — and encouraging her son to join her when he needed attention.

"I used food as a reward," she says. "I should have done better."

The problem grew. John became well known along the Good Humor route as "the kid in his underwear." When knuckleheads at school made fun of his size, Shelby, a year older and fiercely loyal, got in their faces. John kept his feelings inside. "Mom said not to get mad," he says.

By his early teens, his weight topped 200 pounds. Soon he topped 300. At 16, he weighed in at more than 400 pounds.

Maybe it was that even as Beth indulged John all those years, she also remembered to push him. She could have spoken to Mr. John herself, for instance, but she knew that wouldn't help him. "That was his picture up there on the truck, not mine," she says.