IN THE BEGINNING

Arriving in Boston August 10, 1974

Arriving in Boston August 10, 1974

It was 40 years ago today that I drove into Boston in a white, right-hand drive post office van, as Richard Nixon was flying out of Washington D.C. in a green Chinook Marine helicopter. At age 26 I was fleeing my home state and old life, while at age 61 Mr. Nixon was returning to his.

It had taken me two days to drive the 1178 miles from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri to my adopted town of Boston, and as I pulled up in front of 61 Empire Street in the Alston neighborhood the previous year’s Allman Brothers hit Ramblin’ Man poured from the stereo like an announcement of a campaign rally.

“Hey, Reavis!”

It was my new roommate, Patrick, bounding down the stoop with a joint fired up.

“Welcome to Boston,” he said extending the sweet-scented memory cleanser to me from behind a wide grin.  

New Roomie, Patrick

New Roomie, Patrick

*

Patrick was the younger brother of John Theriault, one of my closest friends from Washington University days in St. Louis. John shared the adjoining apartment on the third floor at 61 Empire with another St. Louis transplant with whom I had gone to high school, Charlie Moseley.  John and Charlie had met the previous year in Germany where  John had been stationed in the U.S. Army and Charlie was visiting with a mutual friend.

Originally, the plan was for John to come back to St. Louis and  live with my wife and me as he finished his architecture degree at Wash U.  But when he saw how toxic things had turned on the home front, he turned back for Boston where his St. Louis-bred girlfriend was attending Mass. College of Art.  Once there he suggested that if I was looking for a port in the storm I could come visit in the fall of `73 as there was room enough at the inn.

Those five months in Boston in ’73 proved magical.  Charlie regulated the turntable in apartment #5, an extension of his bartending days at Duff’s Restaurant in the Central West End of St. Louis.  The Eagles, Jonathan Edwards, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and Buffalo Springfield all boomed from our third floor windows out into the muddy Boston heat hard by the Charles River.

My friend John had also been a decorated high school runner in Dayton, Ohio, and a member of the track and cross country teams at Wash. U.  After moving to Boston he had once again taken up the sport as Boston had a rich history of running tied to the legendary Boston Marathon.  And though I was still a cigarette smoker, I too began to run a little after John had introduced me to a number of guys who were members of the recently convened Greater Boston Track Club.  Since I wasn’t sure whether I’d fully take to the hobby, I didn’t see the value in spending for a top-of-the-line model of shoes.  Accordingly, my first pair of running shoes cost me all of $9.00 at a small shoe store on Harvard Avenue in Brighton.

This was also around the time that I also did something about my professional future.  Though I had studied to be a teacher, I had been told hundreds of times, ‘you sound like you’re on the radio. You ought to go into broadcasting’.  Eventually you take note.  Thus did I begin calling radio stations in the Boston area, telling anyone who would listen how 50,000 Polish children couldn’t all be wrong, and I should be hired immediately.

Upon this meager outreach I received a handful of auditions.   The first man I spoke to about a career in broadcasting was Arnie “Woo-Woo” Ginsburg a legendary Boston deejay. While Arnie didn’t offer me a position, the fine folks at WLLH / WSSH in Lowell, Mass. did, the same station where Ed McMahon, sidekick to Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, got his start 20 miles north of Boston in the Merrimack Valley.

In 1974 with a good friend

In 1974 with a good friend ( a neighbor’s dog)

There I was put on the 3 p.m. — 11 p.m. shift on Saturdays and Sundays doing hourly newscasts for both WLLH, the Top 40 formatted AM station, and WSSH, the 50,000-watt FM Easy Listening sister station.

I embarked upon this venture using the pseudonym Oliver Caine, for if I was to fail, let it not be as Toni Reavis.

And there I spent the next two years learning my craft while still working a 40-hour week for the city of Boston’s Parks & Rec Department via the CETA program, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a classic big government work program where I learned every city worker’s primary lesson, get on the rolls and ride.

*

As my friend John continued to immerse himself in the burgeoning local running scene, I witnessed my first Boston Marathon in April 1975, the breakout year for one William Henry Rodgers out of Newington, Connecticut and Wesleyan University.  In August 1974 Bill had beaten mile legend Marty Liquori at the newly formed Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod.  Perhaps the sporting press wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time to distinguish between a miler and true distance man.  All they knew was that a young New England upstart had beaten one of America’s top running stars, and that, alone, made headlines.

The following March Bill brought home the bronze medal from the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Morocco, the first such medal in U.S. running history.

Bill Rodgers, 2:09:55 American Record, Boston 1975

Bill Rodgers, 2:09:55 American Record, Boston 1975

One month later he sent a charge through the U.S. running community with his 2:09:55 American record win at the Boston Marathon, the first of his four Boston Marathon titles.  I was at the finish line that day with tens of thousands of others thinking, “boy, there’s nothing like this in St. Louis!”

As I settled deeper into Boston, in February 1976 I moved from Alston to my own apartment on Beacon Street in Brookline along mile 23 of the Boston Marathon route.   So when the 1977 Boston Marathon came around, I suggested to my WLLH news director that I should cover the event for the station, because “I know Bill.”

Well, Rodgers didn’t win Boston that year, dropping out in the warm conditions that always gave him trouble.  But as I surveyed the scene at the finish line at the Prudential Center after Canadian Jerome Drayton’s victory, I reflected on the arc of  my career, such as it was at the time.

My conclusion was simple: having been a lifelong track and field fan who had now felt the distance bug’s bite, I had developed an affinity for, and enjoyment of the people in this sport a hell of a lot more than I enjoyed covering crime and politics in the Merrimack Valley.  Besides, I could feel something was in the air as my generation sought a defining purpose beyond its anti-authoritarian rage against the Vietnam War.  The time had come to be for something not just anti everything.

Runner's Digest

Now with a good friend embedded in the sport, and another local guy I knew personally joining 1972 Olympic champion Frank Shorter atop of the sport’s world rankings, there were heroes of my own generation to follow.  And though my academic career had been spotty — I graduated last in my high school class, 210 out of 210 —  my teachers had always softened their reproval with the caveat, “if only he would apply himself”.

Well, before running came along I didn’t think I’d been born with a self-applicator. But once I fell upon Boston’s running boom, I had finally found something in which to fully, and happily, apply whatever talents I might have.  And with the history of the sport so strongly rooted in the region, and the number of colleges and races lending a full calendar of seasons to cover, I made the decision that would come to define the remainder of my professional life.

With just two part-time years of broadcast experience behind me, I struck out on my own.  On May 24, 1977, after having borrowed some seed money from my father (a trick in itself – “Tone, when we fly from the nest, we fly alone.”) I began Runner’s Digest, the nation’s first radio show devoted to the sport of running.   By that fall I was the finish line announcer at the inaugural Bonne Bell 10K Final in Boston (now the Tuft’s 10K).   Several weeks later I followed suit in Central Park for the second of the New York City Marathon’s five-borough extravaganzas.  All these years later the urge that led to that decision still animates my working life, and my application of effort has never waned.

How lucky was I? How grateful do I continue to be?  How many thanks do I owe all who have helped along the way?  Here’s to the next 40 years!

END

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32 thoughts on “IN THE BEGINNING

    • That post office van finally died one winter. Bought it for $400 at a post office auction, and fixed it up with a bed, heater, killer stereo, curtains and a sunroof. I spent many a night in its cozy confines, and rolled many miles behind its wheel.

  1. Every reader is with you, every step in this journey! You have come a long way!
    Your Dad and Mom are shining down on you!
    Betsy

  2. What ever happened to John or should I say, where is he? Haven’t heard about him since the Ground Round! Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. It’s very cool to read about your history and be able to share it with you, Toni. Like you, I didn’t always know exactly which direction I was heading, but I always followed my passions. Now here I am, 38 years later, standing back and looking at the big picture, and I am amazed at the journeys that my passions have taken me on because I followed them. I couldn’t be happier with the results, so I know exactly how you feel! Thanks for sharing this story, and for your high-caliber work all these years.

  4. Each additional story morsel you share adds to rather amazing meal of experiences you’ve had. Leaves me hungry for more.

  5. Congrats on your Boston anniversary and your impressive success, Toni – always enjoyed covering Peachtree from the media truck with you.

  6. Congrats on your Boston arrival anniversary & your impressive success, Toni – always enjoyed conversation with you while covering Peachtree from the media truck.

  7. Loved the story line and the historical photos, Toni! It helped fill in the gaps that I had about your early career start. Of course, being a frequent guest on Runner’s Digest back in 79-84… and occasionally seeing you when you made your 1-2 trips back to St. Louis to see your folks… I watched you grow professionally and then branch out into cable TV coverage of our sport… as well as local/regional R/TV coverage of major road races. I am always proud that we grew up in the same region….and prouder yet of the wit and insights that you share in your unique form of electronic journalism. The Wash U’s history department loss was running’s gain! Keep up the great work as well as all the entertainment you provide. Craig

    • Ah, Craig. I remember you showing me a newfangled electronic toy you brought back from the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan one Christmas. Called a Walkman, we couldn’t believe the sound that came out of that small deck and earphones. Just one of the great memories of our time together. Needless to say, your excellence was a big part of the story of our generation in the sport. And your continued interest and commentary shows how deep the bug’s bite can sink. All the best.

  8. Thanks Toni, this is a cool perspective piece for readers like myself who only recently became aware (via your blog) of your deep history in the sport. Particularly appreciate your thoughtful and honest posts on how to grow the sport, a discussion that’s much needed if running ever hopes to rise above its hard-to-shake stigma as a fringe activity. It’s disappointing how many people still have no idea that an American won this year’s Boston Marathon.

    And if any recordings from the Runner’s Digest days are still available, I’d imagine I’m not the only one who’d like to re-live (or experience for the first time) that era vicariously through some of those episodes.

  9. Having read this I thought it was extremely enlightening.
    I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this information together.
    I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both
    reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  10. All the best to you, Toni. Among all these great, nostalgic recollections of yours, one really piqued my memory. I wonder if Duff’s is still open. I hope it still is a great bar. But if not, it sure was.

  11. The first time I remember HEARING you, I believe was at 1984 Chicago Marathon. I didn’t know what to think of you, but I knew you could talk! You found your place and have occupied it well over the years. Kudos!

  12. Hi Toni—

    I really loved reading this post. I arrived in Boston on June 2, 1970 to move in with my girlfriend Trish. We’re still together. A Philadelphian, I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Chicago to get an MBA at Northwestern before moving to Boston. From October 1972 until October 1976, I worked for the Globe, where my writing duties included record reviews on Fridays, rock concert reviews, and interviews of pop stars passing through town on tours. Four months before leaving the Globe for the St. Petersburg Times, I started running. My route took me from our apartment at 88 Mt Vernon Street on Beacon Hill to the Mass Avenue Bridge and back.

    I started to run a few races in Florida and was hooked, but training in the heat was just awful. Not to mention the culture shock of moving from Beacon Hill to Coquina Key, an island in Tampa Bay. Thirteen months there was about a year too long. That’s when Bob Anderson came to the rescue and moved me lock, stock and barrel to the Bay Area to be his advertising director. As it turned out, I decided within a year that I no longer wanted to work for Bob and moved on to the San Francisco Chronicle. Nevertheless, I met and befriended some absolutely amazing people at Runner’s World. I’m pretty sure that you know a few of them — Rich Benyo, Bob Wischnia, Joe Henderson and Angel Martinez come immediately to mind. Joe encouraged me to run the first of my 25 marathons (San Francisco in 1978) and Rich ran the entire race with me. Angel was working in Bob’s mail order shoe business called Starting Line Sports. He was such a nice man! Who knew then what a great career he would carve out for himself. I’m still in touch with Wish in Austin but not often enough. Trish and I really love Wish … such a great guy!

    I think you will get a kick out of the fact that my brother John, who was a biology teacher at Brookline High School for 30+ years, used to record Runner’s Digest on cassette tapes and mail them to me in California. We listened to them in the car during four-hour, early-morning drives on Saturdays to ski at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Whatever happened to Sue Lupica?

    I admire your work. Thanks for all you have done over the years for the running community, both participants and fans.

    Best regards,

    Bill Howard Oakland

    P.S. From the Globe archives: one of my Globe musician interviews, published just a few months before your arrival in Boston.

    • Bill,

      How the hell do we not know each other? We know everyone else in common. And Boy, doesn’t your story have a familiar ring to it? Great stuff. Can’t believe your brother would mail tapes of Runner’s Digest to you.

      You’ll be pleased to hear that Lupe lives in the Bay Area. Haven’t spoken in a couple of years, but last I heard she was doing very well. Anyway, thanks for reaching out. Send along an email or FB contact and well keep in touch.

      All the best, Toni

  13. One of the reasons the end of Chicago, 2010 was so exciting was the announcing. I’ll be watching this Saturday night before Falmouth because it gives me some inspiration.

  14. Really nice memories, Toni…I started running the day after Bill won Boston in 1975 and being a running newbie, avidly listened to Runner’s Digest on Saturday mornings before going over to Fresh Pond to run the weekly race. We had a special time back then. Thanks for your contributions to the sport.

  15. Toni,
    Your blog posts are always wonderful. One never gets the feeling that you were in a hurry to finish the post and each post is so heartfelt that one always feels we are at a bar or someplace, listening to someone at the table tell a story. That’s how personal and vivid you writing is. Thank you for this one. Transports one across the time. I live in India and wasn’t even born when you moved to Boston but I am a super-fan of your posts, looking forward to each one.
    Best Wishes & Thanks,
    D

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