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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!