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?"
Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts