BATESVILLE — On the eve of Nov. 15's Great American Smokeout, Mel Calvert remembers when he smoked three packs a day and hated himself for it.
The first time he tried to kick the habit, the Batesville resident and nine friends each put $20 in a pile, vowing to split the money between those who remained nonsmokers after 90 days. Calvert and one other quitter each pocketed $100. He avoided cigarettes for a month to show he could, then renewed the habit. “After six months, here I am short of breath again and I'm a singer. Experts will tell you nicotine is harder for many people to quit than heroin. First of all, heroin is illegal and nicotine isn’t. Cigarettes don’t give you a euphoric high ... they calm your nerves. They relax you. They’re insidious.”
There was a turning point. “When I finally faced the fact I was addicted, that’s what got me. I looked myself in the eyes in the mirror and said, 'You're an addict.’ And I don’t like it. I’m going to do something about it.”
After researching how smoking affects health in 1976, Calvert developed a seven-step quitting system that worked for him. “It was easy, one of the easiest things I’ve ever done in my life,” says the man who describes himself as a “showman, pilot, ex-U.S. Army officer and church cantor.”
Without nicotine, “I started feeling better immediately. A lot of people think, ‘It’s too late for me.’ Not true. Within five years, your lung cancer death rate decreases by almost half" (please see box for other health benefits of giving up cigarettes).
At first, Calvert "didn't even think of marketing" his method, but coached others. Then a decade ago he wrote “How I Quit Smoking and Lived to Tell About It.” He reports, "I sat down at the computer. Seven days later I sent it to the publisher. It’s a short book ... we sold out every copy” at a Barnes and Noble in Florida, where he lived at the time, donating proceeds to Student Crusade Against Tobacco started by St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Jacksonville, parishioners, including Calvert and wife Sunny. “We helped a lot of kids.”
The crusader was appointed chairman of a petition-gathering committee in northeast Florida to ban smoking in the workplace. The state Legislature passed the measure in 2001 after 71 percent of voters agreed.
The Kindle edition of his book was published Aug. 31. He had to revise it “a little bit, but not much. The steps are etched in stone.” To make it Kindle-friendly, the 89-page book has no page breaks, bullet points or special fonts.
Now the friendly man is re-invigorating his 7 Steps to Life organization of quit coaches (http://7stepstolife.com/). “We’re looking for serious people to join with us ... who are motivated to help rather than to get rich .... We’re going global with this and marketing it all over the world. There are 1.5 billion smokers in many, many countries, especially the Third World countries.”
He notes, “Our program, including all marketing and advertising, will be directed to the loved ones of the smoker, not the smoker him- or herself.”
Locally, “we will be giving our smoking cessation kits free of charge to anyone who asks at any of the venues to which I plan to speak, including the high schools and service organizations ... There is a method to our madness: Since I know the system works without fail, for those who follow each of the seven steps, I have no problem in giving away the system in return for their stories.”
The proud father of six, grandfather of 17 (including seven Eagle Scouts) and soon great-grandfather of 10 recently completed a manuscript he hopes will be published. “Funny Thing Happened to me on the way to my Funeral” is a compilation of one-liners, anecdotes and true stories about the Mel and Sunny showbiz career. “We entertained heads of state and recorded an album with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London on twin pianos and vocals.” They performed at top European venues in the 1970s and 1980s, plus Las Vegas and Nashville.
“Our (show) was more comedy. Our music was incidental, but it was excellent music, a little of everything, some country.” Calvert also learned tricks from his uncle John Calvert, “recognized as the last of the great master magicians. He just performed in Hollywood at the Magic Castle at age 101!”
The 81-year-old Cincinnati native has had a rich life, living in Burbank, Calif.; Connersville; Korea; Orange County, Calif.; Minneapolis; two weeks here, two weeks there while entertaining; and the Canary Islands for seven years.
After retiring, the couple moved to Hendersonville, N.C.; Jacksonville, Fla., for 10 years and now Batesville just over a year ago so Sunny Calvert could become the St. Louis Catholic Church director of music and liturgy.
Up next: an Alaskan cruise.