Keverian is still king of hearts

The Boston Globe
May 24, 2004, Monday ,THIRD EDITION

KEVERIAN IS STILL KING OF HEARTS
FORMER MASS. HOUSE SPEAKER CONTINUES TO HELP ANY WAY HE CAN

By Phil Santoro, Globe Correspondent

EVERETT – The gold-plated sign on his desk reads: “It’s Good To Be
King.” But his drab, rank, closet-size office at Everett City Hall is
fit more for a municipal bureaucrat than for a king. It’s a far cry
from his palatial digs in the State House when he served as speaker
of the House of Representatives from 1985 to 1990. Yet George
Keverian, at one time one of the most prominent figures in Boston
politics, appears, if not regal, then content as the city’s part-time
chief assessor.

At 72, Keverian has returned to his roots in city government, roots
that were planted in 1953 when, fresh out of Harvard University at
the age of 21, he was elected to the Everett Common Council and began
a 37-year career as a Democratic office-holder. He may no longer
wield the kind of influence that determined the size of the House,
but he is not easily forgotten. At City Hall, officials turn to
Keverian to negotiate tax deals with developers, set the tax rate for
the city every year, and guide them through local matters that
involve state agencies.

Last year, Everett officials named a City Hall hearing room after
him. That may not seem to be a big deal, but in Everett, where
campaign signs are as common as street signs, it’s huge. And a few
months ago, the new George Keverian Elementary School opened.

More than his widely fluctuating weight and his mutinous overthrow of
longtime House Speaker Thomas McGee, Keverian is well known for his
compassion and for wearing his heart on his sleeve, traits that some
say cost him his speaker’s job in 1990 when he failed to coalesce a
fractured House because he tried to please everybody. That same year,
Keverian lost his Democratic primary bid for state treasurer to
William Galvin because many of the speaker’s loyal supporters
deserted him.

Today, Keverian finds other ways to care for people. In the past
year, he has “adopted” three Haitian families in Everett, including a
single mother and her twin 5-year-old daughters, who had been evicted
from their apartment because the mother couldn’t keep up with the
rent. Keverian took them into his home for several weeks, getting
their furniture out of storage and into his garage and helping them
find public housing. A lifelong bachelor who for many years cared for
his ailing mother, Keverian chuckles at the suggestion that they may
be the family he never had. But he doesn’t dismiss the notion.

“Oftentimes when their mother picks [the twins] up from school,
they’ll walk here to City Hall and I’ll drive them home. They come in
the door and they run to me – ‘Uncle George, Uncle George,’ ”
Keverian says. “And they hug me and kiss me, and as I’m taking them
home – you know I never married, I never had children – it’s ‘Uncle
George, can we get a Dunkin’ Donut?’ They’ll say, ‘I’m hungry.’
Forget the doughnut. ‘I want a sandwich. With egg and sausage and
bacon and cheese. And I want something to drink.’ And the mother
says, ‘I’ll have a sandwich, too.’ And it’s like $15. But I love
doting on them.”

Keverian met the mother (who wished to remain anonymous), a medical
technician at a Boston hospital, on two separate occasions two years
ago when he was recovering from gastric bypass surgery. He learned
she was living in Everett. Last year, when Keverian was going through
the drive-through at Dunkin’ Donuts, he saw the woman standing nearby
and greeted her. As they chatted, he learned she had been evicted and
her furniture had been seized.

“I said, ‘Where did you sleep?’ ” Keverian says. “She said, ‘I slept
on the stairs of the apartment outside. I came here to clean myself
up in the lady’s room.’ I said, ‘Where are the children?’ She said,
‘With a friend.’ I said, ‘Where are you going to stay?’ She said, ‘I
don’t know.’ Well, I wasn’t going to let her be homeless. I said,
‘Bring the children and come down to my office.’ ”

Keverian invited them to stay at his house while they tried to find
another apartment. During the family’s 2 1/2-week stay, Keverian sent
the mother to the local welfare office, where it was determined that
her $330 net weekly pay made her ineligible for assistance. The woman
is also a part-time student at a community college in Brockton,
studying to become a respiratory therapist.

“She’s one of these people who makes too much for welfare and too
little to live,” he says in a tone of indignation. Her husband,
Keverian says, is a substance abuser who left the family and does not
provide support. Keverian eventually was able to help her land an
Everett Housing Authority apartment, got an accountant to complete
her tax returns at no charge, negotiated with Mass. Electric and got
donations from the community to pay off her $500 overdue electric
bill, and is working to secure income-eligible discounts for her gas
and telephone expenses. Recently he threw a birthday party for the
twins at his office, soliciting and receiving gifts for the girls
from a more than willing City Hall staff, including Mayor David
Ragucci, who occasionally seeks Keverian’s council on sticky
municipal matters.

“George is an invaluable asset to me and the city,” Ragucci says.
“He’s an icon in this city. He’s been a lot of help to a lot of
people over the years. He has that unique ability to make people
happy.”

In the past few months, Keverian also helped a Haitian immigrant go
through the permitting process to open a hair salon and “made a few
calls” for a Haitian woman who was trying to get accepted to Bunker
Hill Community College. Michelle Volmar said she would never have
been able to open her Malden hair salon without Keverian’s guidance.
“He’s my adviser,” Volmar says. “He’s a wonderful man; he has a good
heart.”

One of only a handful of Armenian-Americans growing up in the mostly
Italian and Irish city of Everett, Keverian says he has a soft spot
for people who are “trying to fit in” and need guidance.

“Some people kiddingly call me the ambassador to Haiti,” Keverian
says. “But it just happened to be Haitian people who asked me for
help. . . . I don’t care who it is, if someone asks for help, if I
can help them, I will.”

Keverian laments, however, that he can’t help as much as he could
when he presided over 160 members of the House. Lots of friendships
were won and lost during his 12 years of political maneuvers at the
State House, which included his work on redistricting (and
subsequently reducing) House seats, his successful bid to wrestle the
House speakership from the decade-long tenure of McGee, his
replacement of key McGee appointees with his own, and his swan song
in elected politics – a failed campaign for the state treasurer’s
office in 1990.

Is there loyalty among politicians? “Very little,” says Keverian,
“When you find it, you worship it.”

It was his loyalty to the late Speaker McGee that enabled Keverian to
rise to power; he earned McGee’s trust and respect by taking on the
thankless task of redistricting the house seats, reducing the number
from 240 to 160. His reward for the project and for his loyalty to
McGee was getting appointed House majority leader and a promise that
he would get the speaker’s gavel when McGee stepped down at the end
of his sixth year, as had been the practice of the four previous
House speakers. Six years turned into seven, then eight, then nine;
each year Keverian would ask McGee when it would be his turn to steer
the ship. Frustrated by McGee’s vague responses, Keverian took a huge
risk in plotting McGee’s ouster.

Now, at times, Keverian finds it frustrating to be out of the
spotlight.

“When you’re speaker, people would do anything for you,” Keverian
says. “Today, sometimes I pick up the phone and ask somebody for help
and they ask you to spell your last name.”

Keverian can still count on the friendship of a handful of folks at
the State House, including State Representative Robert Correia of
Fall River, who served as the House whip under Keverian’s leadership,
House general counsel Louis Rizoli, and a few national politicos,
including President Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, who served in
the House with Keverian, and US Representative William Delahunt,
whose daughter is Keverian’s godchild.

Since leaving the State House, Keverian has been beset with a number
of health problems, most of which are a result of his weight, which
has fluctuated from 420 to 160 pounds. Though he speaks about it
candidly, being overweight has always been a sensitive topic for
Keverian, who has been the subject of some public ridicule.

“Sometimes people say things to get a laugh, but they don’t stop and
think about what effect that has on the person who’s the subject of
their joke,” he says. “They wouldn’t make jokes about someone in a
wheelchair or someone with an illness.”

The decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery two years ago was a
risky one, Keverian says, though he felt he had little choice. Given
his poor health, including a diabetic condition that required him to
take two shots of insulin a day, Keverian’s doctors at Mass. General
warned him there could be complications with the surgery. However,
his surgeon told him “because of my health, not having the surgery
was even riskier. I was desperate. I knew bad things were starting to
happen.”

After the surgery, Keverian lost 100 pounds. Since then, he says his
health has improved. Because of the weight loss, his insulin
production is sufficient and he no longer needs to take shots. Today
he weighs 290 pounds and says he’s trying to lose 80 more. Keverian
says his struggles with weight make him “quite sensitive” to issues
of popular diets, such as the South Beach and Atkins diets, and
obesity among children.

“People like me, when we are desperate to lose weight, we’ll try
anything. But the question is, will you be able to live like that.
It’s a lifestyle change, not a diet. Exercise is the key. That’s the
only way to do it. People who walk every day or go to the gym,
they’re serious. I don’t exercise; I’m not proud of it. But I realize
that’s the key, and I’m trying.”

Though in semi-retirement, Keverian fills each day by keeping regular
hours at City Hall and by running errands for and with his newfound
friends. One of those errands found Keverian waiting in his car with
the 5-year-old twins while their mother was in the supermarket. “One
of the girls says ‘Uncle George, I have to go to the bathroom,’ ”
Keverian recalls. “And now I have to take them in to the supermarket
so they can go to the bathroom.”

It’s a far cry from the days when he was holding court with needy
legislators and lobbyists who were dependent upon him to enact
legislation that would affect the state’s 6 million residents. Within
a smaller circle of people who look to him to help solve their
problems, Keverian can still be king.

Phil Santoro can be reached at [email protected]

GRAPHIC: PHOTO ,
1. George Keverian has helped many people in Everett, including
Michelle Volmar (rear right) and a Haitian woman who asked that her
name and those of her children not be used. / GLOBE STAFF PHOTO /
MICHELE MCDONALD 2. Michelle Volmar says she never would have been
able to open her hair salon without the help and advice of George
Keverian. / GLOBE STAFF PHOTO / MICHELE MCDONALD

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS