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Keverian aiming for a healthy comeback

George Keverian (left) with Thomas Finneran, Charles Flaherty, and Robert Quinn at the opening of the state House of Representatives session in 2005. George Keverian (left) with Thomas Finneran, Charles Flaherty, and Robert Quinn at the opening of the state House of Representatives session in 2005. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2005)
Email|Print| Text size + By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / February 7, 2008

Talk about parliamentary procedure. George Keverian has been debating his brother all afternoon and appears ready to hang tough for a filibuster.

At issue is whether Keverian, a towering state figure two decades ago as House speaker, should install a stair lift in his Everett home when he is discharged from the hospital. Bedridden for more than two months, Keverian insists he needs the lift to live independently in his second-floor apartment.

His brother disagrees. The contraption, he says, would impede Keverian's motivation for sticking with his rehabilitation and regaining full mobility. It would be better, he insists, to have family around who can coax and care for him.

While most attention has been focused on the presidential race, Keverian, a political player for much of his 76 years, has been waging a very different campaign.

"We gave him last rites," says Jack Keverian during a recent visit.

The days were grim following Nov. 30, when his younger brother was raced to Massachusetts General Hospital, struggling to breathe. Fluid had built up around his heart, slowly squeezing it off. Emergency surgery was followed by several more operations and a month in intensive care, on a feeding tube.

Slowly, Keverian regained strength and was transferred to Youville Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Cambridge on Jan. 18, where he has been regaining his ability to walk. The road back has been measured in feet - he's up to about 50 now with the aid of a walker - and comes with tough love.

"These people who are physical therapists, occupational therapists, they don't take any guff," says the former speaker. "When I see them coming, it's like, 'Oh my God. Here they are.' "

Two weeks before he was hospitalized, Keverian was abruptly dismissed from his post as Everett's chief of assessors by outgoing Mayor John Hanlon. The mayor, knocked out of the race in the September primary, said the position Keverian held for 12 years was no longer needed. Keverian said he was being punished for backing another candidate after Hanlon's primary defeat. The termination was widely criticized in Everett, where Keverian approaches iconic status. An elementary school and a City Hall meeting room bear his name.

"Jack wouldn't allow us to even use the 'H' [Hanlon] word for the month George was in intensive care," says Keverian's close friend Alfred Lattanzi, referring to the banning of any discussions involving the termination.

As Keverian holds court at his bedside, the talk invariably turns to politics. Jack Keverian, a Drexel University professor emeritus in metallurgy, just sighs. But there is a hint of a smile. His younger brother seems to be winning the stair-lift debate by default.

"Barely more than a month ago, we thought we were going to lose him," says Jack Keverian. "And now we're arguing."

His brother has already launched into a story about his start in politics, when the two Keverians teamed up with an unusual strategy. It was 1953, George was fresh out of Harvard with a degree in American government, and there were three seats open on Everett's Common Council, the lower body in the city's bicameral government. With more than three dozen candidates, Keverian needed a way to stand out. His brother, then a Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral student, suggested Keverian use a new motion picture camera from MIT that had the ability to rapidly shoot still frames. The idea was to photograph every house in his ward and create individualized campaign fliers, so that each household received a mailing with its own house on the cover and a message about neighborly attention. The gimmick captured widespread media attention, and the kid from Harvard won.

"He listened that time," says Jack Keverian.

The decades since have featured several other dramatic battles.

In 1985, he wrested the speaker's post from Thomas McGee, in an unprecedented upset of a sitting speaker. Five years later, Keverian lost the position and a Democratic primary bid for state treasurer.

He went home to Everett and in 1995 took a part-time post as chief assessor, a position he held until his November firing.

Through it all, Keverian's most daunting nemesis has been his weight. At 424 pounds in 1981, he stuck to a liquid diet for a year, losing 160 pounds. A year later, he was back up to 370, and has been struggling with weight ever since.

That battle, George Keverian tells his brother, best illustrates his inability to conquer physical challenges.

"I have never been able to get that discipline again," he says.

That, Keverian adds, is why he needs a stair lift. He is expected to be discharged tomorrow.

The debate is back on the floor.

"When you make up your mind, you can do anything," says Jack Keverian. Then he adds to the assemblage: "He is not going to fall short of where he was before he went to the hospital."

Just before he was hospitalized, George Keverian hired a lawyer to fight his termination. That action is on hold as he wrestles with rehabilitation.

Yet in the midst of the filibuster, the brothers find common ground. George Keverian's ultimate goal is to go back to work where he started, in Everett City Hall.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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