CENTRAL FALLS — How Rhea Levesque came to the conclusion she needed to lose some excess pounds, she admitted, adds up to a rather humorous story.
In early October 1991, her daughter, Yvette, called and asked her to pick up her 10-year-old twin sons, Nick and Neil St. Jean, from Nathanael Greene Elementary School on Smithfield Avenue. Yvette explained she and then-husband Kenny had tickets to a Boston Red Sox game, and they wanted to get a jumpstart on the trek to Fenway Park.
Naturally, Levesque acquiesced, as she and her husband Norman adored the Sox.
As the couple stood near a corner outside the school, she found it puzzling that her grandsons kept looking behind them.
“When I asked why they were doing that, Nick said, 'You see those two boys over there? They're bullies, and they say they're going to come after us. But I told them our grandma was picking us up from school, and she's huge like (former pro wrestler) Andre the Giant. If you lay a finger on us, she'll crush you!'” she offered.
“Neil just looked at me and said, 'Don't worry, Grandma. We'll never have a problem again,” she added.
With a tinge of melancholy, she mentioned, “I went home, looked in the mirror and thought, 'If they think I weigh 250-300 pounds, I better do something about it – fast.'”
Less than a month later, on Nov. 5, Levesque, then 64, hitched on with the new Central Falls chapter of TOPS, an acronym for “Take Pounds Off Sensibly,” a non-profit, weight-loss support and wellness education organization established by Esther Manz of Milwaukee in 1948.
Eighteen-plus years later, after losing 68 pounds and reaching her goal weight of 170, Levesque was named the TOPS Club Inc.'s Rhode Island State Queen for 2009-10.
At 83, the longtime Central Falls resident still possesses the crown, and won't yield it until a new queen is announced in April 2011.
“She reached her goal on April 21, 2009, and we couldn't be more proud of her,” grinned Joan Tinkham of Warwick, who acts as the TOPS/Rhode Island Coordinator. “After she signed on, she had to go to a doctor and get a goal slip.”
Since Day One, Levesque stated, the TOPS (Chapter) 28 group, which meets every Tuesday between 6-7:30 p.m., has been more than supportive, despite moves from Notre Dame Church and the Madeira Club in Central Falls to the St. John Episcopal Church's parish hall in Cumberland just last year.
“Norman thought it was funny that I was going to try to shed some pounds, though he was very supportive, but the TOPS group was incredible,” she noted. “It's like being part of a family because everyone is there for you. We have a great volunteer leader, Nancy Martineau (of Cumberland), and all of her officers are fantastic.
“We have a weight recorder, some assistants, and they're the best,” she continued. “When you go to a meeting, they greet you and say, 'How'd you do this week?' or 'I hope you lost.' If you gain weight, you don't get chastised. People will just say, 'You'll do better next week. I know you will,' and the leader gives you programs to help you on your path.
“Becoming the 'Queen' is a big honor; in fact, the biggest of my life. Joan sent me a letter last March that I had won, and I couldn't tell anybody but my family because it had to remain a secret. It had to be a surprise at our State Recognition Day. I couldn't believe it. All I can say is, I never gave up. I kept trying and trying.”
Those who haven't heard about the TOPS Club Inc., Manz created it in 1948, not surprisingly, as she and two friends discussed the idea around a kitchen table.
She had been pregnant with her fifth child, and – while participating in group sessions designed to prepare women for childbirth – she witnessed the power the women provided in helping each other stay within their doctors' guidelines for pregnancy.
From the very beginning, TOPS officials say, anyone who succeeded in losing significant poundage deserved royal treatment. Within a year, TOPS crowned its first queen, and has done so ever since. In fact, the organization began honoring weight-loss kings in 1957.
Really, it's bigger than you think. For years, Manz had dreamed of creating a research program to help find causes and remedies for obesity, and it became real in 1966. Thanks to members' contributions, TOPS established its own Obesity and Metabolic Research Program, and – by 1971 – more than 200 TOPS aficionados had participated in its short-term inpatient studies in Milwaukee.
Such studies have expanded and continue even now.
TOPS 28 of Cumberland currently has about 65 members, with 325 statewide. It has approximately 170,000 members – men, women and children ages 7 and older – in nearly 10,000 chapters throughout all 50 states and Canada. It also promotes successful, affordable weight management, and utilizes a philosophy combining healthy eating, regular exercise, wellness information, awards and recognition and support from others at weekly chapter meetings.
The price tag is nominal, with an annual membership fee of $26 in the U.S. ($30 in Canada). Per-meeting fees also are low, perhaps $1-3 a week, and those go to local chapter expenses. The annual fee delivers to folks numerous entitlements: A variety of useful tools, including “The Choice Is Mine,” a healthy lifestyle guide; retreats, rallies and recognition events; TOPS News magazine; and on-line access.
In 1955, the first graduation of KOPS (Keep Pounds Off Sensibly) took place at the TOPS National Convention in Chicago at the American Medical Association's headquarters.
So, how did Levesque rid herself of the extra weight?
“I drank eight glasses of water a day,” she explained. “You see, I've been a diabetic for a long time now, and what helped me lose, I think, was that I had some fluid in my back. I had three doctors, and they didn't know what it was, so they called me the 'Mystery Patient.' Finally, it disappeared, but then went to my heart.
“One doctor told me I was a time bomb,” she added. “He put me on a medication where I had no taste buds for, like, two weeks. When I got off it, I just didn't feel like eating.”
Likewise, she adhered to a strict “exchange” diet offered by TOPS 28 – in essence, one that follows the food pyramid and portion control.
“If not for TOPS, I don't think I'd be alive,” Levesque revealed. “Because of my diabetes, my doctor said that someone who has it as long as I have – 46 years – well, (age) 75 is usually the limit. I'm very thankful to everyone who has stood by me, helped me.”
Therese McMaugh, who lives near Levesque in Central Falls, is the TOPS/Rhode Island Area Captain, and has been a member since 2003. She promised she'll never forget her friend's reaction to being selected “State Queen.”
“Rhea was ecstatic; she kept saying, 'I don't believe it! I don't believe I did it!' I've lost about 100 pounds since I started with TOPS 28, and the key is we work as a team. If she has a bad day, or a bad week, I'll try to raise her spirits, and vice-versa.
“We're there for everyone, whether they've lost weight or not,” she continued. “If we weren't at TOPS, we probably all would have put the weight back on. That's why we encourage our members to come every week. It's so natural for us. That's why we're a team. We work together as one.”
Mentioned Tinkham: “We all call each other. Like Rhea said, we're like a family. People walk into a meeting and they don't know a soul. They have to weigh in, and then we all talk. We all become friends after that, and – after a while – you begin getting invited into each other's homes. That's the way this works.
“God forbid that Rhea had something else to do on a Tuesday night. She wouldn't, because Tuesdays are for TOPS.”
To illustrate how tight this band of sisters and brothers are, Tinkham indicated this trio – all sitting together at Levesque's kitchen table on this afternoon – would have to cut the interview short, though for good reason.
“We have to go to a wake in Cumberland at 4 (p.m.) for a member's brother,” Levesque stated. “If somebody who's a member gets sick, we all get together and send them a get-well card.”
She swore she doesn't tell many she's the Rhode Island Queen, though will remind her husband every so often.
“If he gets funny with me, I'll just say, 'Hey, you don't treat a queen that way!' You know what's great? On my diet, I love tuna fish salad, so I ate a lot of that, and I make my own soups, like chicken or vegetable, and don't put in any sodium. My husband ate the same food, and I think he likes it.”
Levesque has no worries about Thanksgiving, which she and Norman will spend at Yvette's home in Pawtucket.
“My job is to make the chocolate cream pies – one regular, one sugar-free,” she giggled. “No one will eat it if it's sugar-free, but I know I'll have a piece of that one.”
For more information on TOPS, or to become a member, call (800) 932-8677, or visit www.TOPS.org .