Kenny Wright is still Portsmouth's most visible citizen. He's everywhere, it seems. But his constituents have been seeing less of the mayor these days - 40 pounds less.
Some months ago, Hizzoner put himself - and the whole city - on a diet. Wright aims to lose 100 pounds ("My doctor says I need to lose 200 pounds") and hopes the city's 96,000 folks drop a collective half-million as part of his "Get Healthy Portsmouth" crusade.
When the mayor went public with his initiative, he didn't just tip the scale. He broke it. He weighed 423 pounds.
The hardest part of trying to get fit when you are the mayor, he said, is attending functions where there is always food.
"I put celery and carrots and things like that on my plate and nibble at it," he said, laughing. "Oh, man. That's tough."
In addition to doing "push aways" from the table and cutting back on portions, he starts his day with calisthenics and takes a 2-mile walk. He hopes to add weight training and more strenuous activity over time.
"I'm doing it the old-fashioned way," said Wright, who has been mayor for the last 2-1/2 years. "No trainer or special diets. So many people don't have access to those things. I want to show people you don't need all the bells and whistles and things like surgery to get healthy."
Wright got his inspiration for "Get Healthy Portsmouth" when he attended a Mayor's Conference in Washington, D.C.
"I met the mayor of Oklahoma City. He started a program in his city and they lost 1 million pounds," he said. "They are a city of 600,000 people. I thought we could do this and lose a half-million pounds, but it has to start with me."
Wright, who turns 50 this month, "grew up" in Portsmouth on County Street, not far from downtown. His mom still lives in the house of his youth. He graduated from Wilson High School, where he played football for the Presidents. He also played football at the Apprentice School under the legendary Norm Snead.
"You're not going to believe this, but I was a 180-pound running back," he said.
He went on to Tidewater Community College and Thomas Nelson Community College before earning his engineering degree from Old Dominion. He has been the president and CEO of Wright's Engineering for the past 13 years.
He and Thomasina have been married for 27 years and have four daughters, Ashleigh, 16, Brianna, 11, and twins Christina and Danielle, 8.
The not-so Big Guy talked recently about how his personal quest and "Get Healthy Portsmouth" program are doing.
Wow. How did you get to be 423 pounds?
It takes time. When you are raising a family, working and going to school all at once, you eat on the run and don't think about what you're putting in you. Plus, I was sitting at a desk at work with a refrigerator next to me with lots of good stuff in it. I can take down just about anything. Weight issues have always run in the family.
What do you tell people who want to get involved and lose weight and get fit?
That you have everything you need. We have great fresh vegetables and fruits here, a farmers market, wonderful walking places.
Have you been successful in getting people to buy into your vision of a healthier Portsmouth?
I've got about 3,000 followers on Facebook. We all know the statistics. Thirty-nine percent of us are overweight. Heart disease and diabetes are out of control, especially in the African American community. So, it hasn't been hard getting people on board. It's like we have become one big support group.
What's been the reaction when folks see you on your walk?
It's been great. I am usually in my sweat pants or shorts. People will call out, "Go, Mayor, go." People have actually gotten out of their cars and joined me.
What changes have you noticed being down 40 pounds?
My numbers are down, like cholesterol. I never did have high blood pressure, despite my weight. But the biggest thing for me has been my breathing is so much better. When I started, it would take me almost an hour to do the 2 miles. Now, I can do it in about a half-hour.
What are you doing that the public doesn't see?
I do exercises every morning in my pajamas when I get up. I do sit-ups, leg lifts and squats.
I'll bet you have gotten a lot of advice from your public.
For sure. One lady told me to put on my plate things I don't like and eat that. It's a great idea, but I like everything.
You and the city have a long way to go. How are you going to stay on course?
We have to realize that it took a long time to get in the shape we are. Just like it takes a long time to fix a city or anything else. We just have to keep doing the right things. I hope to add more things to my program as I progress. But right now, I've got to just keep moving.
What is your ultimate goal?
According to the BMI chart, I should weigh 196 pounds. I don't think this frame is ever going to see that. I just want to be healthy and enjoy my family and life.
Have you thought about the next time you have to make a public appearance carrying a sign that says "Do Not Feed the Mayor"?
(Laughs) Now that might work.nib