By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
9:57 PM EDT, July 14, 2012
Back in 2000, when he was a shy and portly 8-year-old, John Boias had a grown-up-sized dilemma.
There he was in the family townhome one day, sweltering on a summer afternoon, when the strains of "Send in the Clowns" came wafting through the windows. The jingle had always meant one thing: "Mr. John," the local Good Humor man, was in their Edgewood neighborhood, his mother, Beth, was about to give him some money, and he was free to toddle out and snag a frozen treat.
Lately, though, the visits had grown less fun.
Mr. John had a photo on the side of his truck that was very popular with his customers. It showed a big-for-his-age 3-year-old boy clad only in underpants, standing in front of this very truck, licking a Fudgsicle as it melted over his body.
It had run on the front page of The Baltimore Sun in 1995, provoked a torrent of calls and letters to the newsroom and become the topic of city-wide conversation. The boy in his underwear was John.
When you're a second-grader who has a weight problem, when the other kids at school have been taunting you about your size on a daily basis, when you're a reserved young man who's now old enough to realize that you've practically become famous in your own hometown for the very qualities that mark you as different, what in the world do you do?
John Boias approached the truck.
"Mr. John, may I ask you something?" he said.
"Sure, John," the vendor replied. "What is it?"
"Do you think you could you take the picture down?"
The driver did, and in some ways, John Boias' life has never been the same.
It's an odd thing to become famous for a scene you were in, unintentionally, before you were old enough to be aware of your own behavior.
Just ask Boias. He's 20 years old now, six feet of bashful thoughtfulness who lives with his parents, Beth and Tony, and his sister, Shelby, in a Bel Air subdivision.
"I wouldn't say the picture is a major part of my life," says John, who still struggles with his weight. "But it's a part of my life. I do think it has been important for me to accept that."
The Sun ran the picture on Aug. 3, 1995, then again as part of a "best-of" feature at the end of the year. Last month, as editors assembled a special magazine to mark The Sun's 175th anniversary, they named it one of the best pictures in the paper's history and ran it again.
"Every time I think that picture is out of my life, here it comes again," Boias says.
He never asked for the spotlight.
Seventeen summers ago, the Mid-Atlantic happened to be in the midst of a string of days in the 90s — three weeks' worth, in fact, a record. On Aug. 2, this triggered a long-standing ritual at the Boias household: waiting for trusty John Hudson, the 55-year-old ice-cream man everyone called "Mr. John," then rushing to the curb to enjoy some ice cream and conversation.
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.
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.
It wasn't the last time John would stand up for himself.
One day in his mid-teens, as he surfed the Internet, he stopped at a site that dealt with obesity. He made himself read the whole thing.
"There are plenty of people in my situation who only get worse," he says. "They end up stuck in the house, never going outside and having no life. I wasn't going to end up like that."
He looked up a team of bariatric surgeons — obesity specialists — in Havre de Grace. John listened as they laid out a range of options. He chose lap-band surgery, a procedure by which doctors implant a band around the stomach to reduce its size.
He had it done just after turning 18. Since then, more has changed than his girth.
'Yelling doesn't help'
To Beth Boias, it hardly seems possible 17 years have passed since her boy first appeared in The Sun.
"One day they're in diapers. The next they're asking for the car keys," she says one night as she, Tony, Shelby and John sit at their kitchen table.
A lot has changed, they agree. Mr. John, a fixture of their past, died five years ago. Beth and Tony are together again. Shelby, an aspiring writer, is employed at Walmart, Beth at Verizon in Silver Spring.
Her son? You'd hardly recognize him.
It's not just that he has lost a quarter of his body weight, and counting, since the surgery. Dark-eyed and clad in the oversized T-shirt he favors, he comes across as husky, not obese, despite weighing about 300 pounds. He has maintained a disciplined diet (a single cup full of food per meal, no sugary drinks), gotten regular feedback in counseling sessions and taken regular exercise (a two-mile walk with Tony each day).
A self-taught computer whiz, he also saves his family money by keeping their laptops in good repair. He met a young lady online and has been dating her. And he interviewed for his first job this spring, aced the interview and got the gig. He recently started at Walmart, where he works in produce and wrangles carts in the parking lot.
And the photo? It has always been there, reappearing in his life every now and then, always uninvited. When it does, it hurts "a smidge" at first, he says. Then he's fine.
This is the guy, after all, who never lost his cool when the other kids at school gave him a hard time. "Yelling doesn't help," he says. The guy who only seems to get angry when Beth tries to blame herself for his health issues. "I'm the one who ate the food," he insists.
And the guy who, when a friend called him last month to tell him The Sun was running the picture yet again, thought for a moment, laughed, then emailed a copy to his girlfriend. "She thought it was adorable," he says.
No, all these years later, the kid in the photo could hardly have a healthier attitude.
"I was 3," he says. "I was hungry. Why should I feel bad about that?"
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