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Earning every inch

Jim Collier grew up in Iowa with the message that a good boy cleans his plate, gets rewarded with a big dessert and makes mom happy.

By age 8, Collier was fat, and he has stayed that way all his life, peaking at 330 pounds before recently drawing the line and heading, at age 73, into six months of Duke University's rigorous obesity boot camp. Collier entered the program at 302 pounds and dropped 60 big ones. But it's been hard, and his weight has plateaued, he notes with both hope and frustration, about halfway to his life goal of 180 pounds.

What he learned at Duke's Diet & Fitness Center is — no surprise — all about "eat less; exercise more."

"It would be wonderful if there was a magic bullet, or you could take a magic cure or pill, but you can't," says Collier, a major arts benefactor in the Rogue Valley.

There's a lot of controversy about diet in the weight-loss world, but not at Duke, says Collier. It's simple: small portions and just 3 ounces of protein (preferably fish or some other low-fat protein, like chicken or turkey, with the rest from vegetable protein). And guess where you can indulge in unlimited quantities of food? Salad! Have all you want, pig out and wolf down gales and bales of it — lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and peppers (no salt) — till you turn blue and the compulsion to munch is finally sated.

That brings up the final, big piece of the program after medical guidance, workouts and diet. The hard work is changing behavior — the mental processes, why we overeat, says Collier.

"Changing your thinking is not easy," he says. "There's a lot of emotional reasons we eat foods with fats and sugars in them. You have to switch the thinking process to other things, like sports, exercises, reading books, whatever you can, to get your mind off the escapes you've had all your life."

Until Duke, the career high-school English teacher had "numbed out ... frustrations and anxieties" with an afternoon snack of cherry pie a la mode and a dinner of steak with more pie, pushing 4,000 calories a day.

"I was 'committing suicide' by the early 1970s, so friends told me, and they were right," says Collier.

During that time, he engaged in a series of weight-loss programs with Seventh-day Adventists, Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig, which combined to knock off 100 pounds — for a while.

Collier hit his peak weight of 330 pounds when he arrived at the Rogue Valley Manor in 2003. In 2007, he started traveling to Duke, engaging in programs that lasted a month or two, but his success was fleeting.

"Back home, I would get off the program big-time," he says, "and the weight came back. I started eating the old ways, bloating up to the old weight by 2008."

The one- or two-month-long visits weren't enough, he says, so he committed to the half-year program spanning September 2010 to March 2011.

Now that he's back, Collier is working to build on his latest success. He confers with dietitians at the Manor, and they help him shape a 500-calorie dinner that's delicious.

Recognizing that exercise is "tricky for older people," Collier works with personal trainers at the Manor's fitness center. He does almost eight hours of walking each week coupled with low-resistance, high-repetition machine workouts. One of those machines is a NuStep cycling-rowing machine he donated to the facility.

Collier's cardiologist "painted an ugly picture" of what's going to happen if he doesn't slim down: heart surgeries, bypasses, wheelchairs. He's candid about how it's "like a battle," with every inch gained in sweat and determination.

His target intake is 1,500 calories a day, but right now he's flattened out at 1,900 a day, neither losing nor gaining weight. His ideal weight would be 180, says Collier, who stands 5 feet 5 inches tall, but he'll be deeply happy to break through the magic, 200-pound barrier.

"I don't want to go before my time. I like to travel and go see the performing arts. I had a friend at Duke. He was 511 pounds and in a wheelchair. He lost 80 pounds. I saw many ladies who weighed so much it was pathetic. It was a revelation about the concern on this all over the world.

"It's very similar to alcoholism. But you don't have to drink to live. You do have to eat. You can't quit. I'm tired of being heavy, but I'm more success than failure and, yes, hopefully, I will get there."

Collier inherited a fortune and is using it to support many performing-arts organizations in the region: Britt Festivals, Rogue Opera, Rogue Valley Symphony, Chorale and Harmonizers; Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Camelot Theatre Company, whose new theater bears his name.

Since his first visit to Duke in 2007, Collier has been giving regular pep talks to struggling friends. He is available for fitness lectures by contacting Sarah Prewitt, the Manor's public-relations director, at 541-857-7028.

Jim Collier recently completed six months at Duke University’s rigorous obesity boot camp, and it wasn’t his first time there. - Jamie Lusch