He didn’t finish his first Boston Marathon in 1949, but over the next two decades Connecticut’s John J. Kelley would become the face of American marathoning at a time, like our own, when international athletes dominated the Boston winner’s circle. What’s more, this two-time Olympian remains the only member of the Boston Athletic Association to win the club’s most famous race, though he would finish second five times, only two less than his namesake, but not relative, John A. Kelley, the man known as “Old Kel” to differentiate him from “Young John”.
But racing wasn’t John’s sole legacy to the sport. When his competitive days were over the man many believe to be the father of modern American distance running became a mentor to dozens if not hundreds of dedicated acolytes. Thus, since John’s death three years ago at age 80, friends and admirers have worked tirelessly to commemorate the life and legacy of this special man.
This Sunday September 21st, a bronze statue of Young John (and his dog Brutus) will be unveiled at 56 West Main Street, Mystic, Connecticut, right next to Mystic Pizza.
Six former winners of the Boston Marathon are expected to join in the unveiling and dedication, including 1968 Boston Marathon champion Amby Burfoot, who was coached and taught by Kelley; Bill Rodgers, Amby’s college roommate at Wesleyan who won Boston four times between 1975 and 1980; Geoff Smith, 1984 & `85 Boston champion; and Jack Fultz, the 1976 winner. On the women’s side, three-time winner Sara Mae Berman (1969-71) and Nina Kuscsik the 1972 winner will attend. Local TV station WTNH had the story.
I interviewed John on many occasions. The combination of his sharp intellect, deep reading and curious nature made him a perfect subject and great company. One cold February in 1982, while attending an indoor meet at Yale in New Haven, I sat John down and went over a swath of his marathon career at Boston. Perhaps it will give you a glimmer into the quality of the man.
“My first Boston in `49 I was in high school in New London, and the running bug had bitten. I held off running it for two years. I had a knee injury, and sat down somewhere around B.C., getting picked up by a sympathetic onlooker.
“I went to Boston University (as did the statue sculptor Brian Hanlon, who’s a serious runner himself), and every year I felt the pull of the marathon. Finally, I prevailed on my track coach to let me run the thing. I was working part-time and going to school full-time in 1953, but managed 70-75 miles per week. So I pleased myself with a fifth place finish, first American. I came in at something like 2:28.
“For the first two years, 1953 & `54, I was up there for three-quarters of the race. Then the experience and age edge the international runners had on me told. I hung on from Boston College on. Looking back at that 1954 race, it’s amazing how little I knew about training, or common sense. One afternoon I took a training spin over the course three weeks before the race, dodging traffic all the way in from Hopkinton. And I came in actually a few seconds faster than I did in the race three weeks later. It’s amazing I did that well after that type of training.
“1956 was by far the most competitive Boston I ever ran, including 1957 when I won by over three minutes. But in 1956 Viskari (Finland’s Antti Viskari) and I locked up in a tremendous tandem battle that went virtually over the whole course. And even when he pulled away and I knew I wasn’t going to win in the last mile and a half, I didn’t fall apart. I simply couldn’t run any faster. He overpowered me. When I came in I was still full of running. And then when we heard our times, 2:14, just 20-seconds apart, I was ecstatic! But like so many things that catch you by beautiful surprise, this one had its rug-puller. Two weeks later they re-measured the course and found it to be 1120 yards short. All in all, it would have panned out to be my fastest marathon. It’s always been a regret that I never officially went under 2:20 (John won in 1957 in 2:20:05).
“But as I looked at the race, I did the best I could. I wasn’t that win-conscious. I always felt there were so many variables over that distance, so many unpredictables, the thing to do was prevail. And then after prevailing it becomes a battle of attrition. (Boston Globe’s) Jerry Nason put it nicely when he wrote, “And then there was one”. After several stages of groups at different checkpoints, as nearly always happens, it comes down to one person. The thing is to prevail, and then be that one survivor.
OF course, it all came together in 1957.
“Bio-rhythms hadn’t come in in 1957, but retrospectively I think it was a perfect bio-rhythm day for me. And when that happens, and you are also in top shape, it is possible to win as I won on that day. I didn’t have a race that predicted a win. I went out with the leaders and remember waving to Jock (Semple) as he passed on the press truck at three miles. At that point I was running so well within myself that I had to hold back. I had plenty of energy spillover to watch the people, and wave at Jock, and do the things that some races would preclude, because they would demand every ounce of energy. But 1957 did not demand that. Even when I made my break, it was as if I were holding back. I never did let out. I kind of regret that. But I knew Karvonen’s reputation (1954 champion Veikko Karvonen of Finland), and I didn’t want to be overrun by him in the last mile. I remembered that he had taken (England’s Jim ) Peters over the hills in `54, and I feared him on the hills. So I never let out everything I had. Had I done that, I could have gone under 2:20.
“The crowd in `57 was enormous, because it was a perfect day. And when they sensed they could see an American win (the last American victory had come in 1945, John A. Kelley’s second win) they were wildly enthusiastic. I don’t remember anything like those last ten miles. It was just an ecstatic crowd with flags and balloons and hullabaloo. To me that was biggest crowd I had ever seen.
“It never bothered me that I was referred to over the years as “America’s only hope”. I never gave it undue thought. Probably, a journalistic bromide you get tagged with, and you ride easily with it. Nick Costas came along in `55. I was in the army. He used to refer to it as “America’s lonely dope”, because when you’re out training in bad weather, and you are the only guy out there doing that, he just reduced it to the proper perspective.”
John went on to explore four more runner-up finishes following his `57 win (1958, `59, `61, `63). Then he spoke of the transitional phase in his career.
“If you’re looking for the demarcation between being competitive and non-competitive, it took place in 1965. I missed 1966 due to illness, and in `67 Amby (Burfoot) was coming into the picture, and I lived vicariously through him. Amby won in `68, and then Bill Rodgers took over. I continued going up to Boston, running what I call a “gentleman’s race”, bopping around, taking pictures. It’s sentimental journey for me now. That began in 1967. Until that point I was the tiger of the Boston Marathon. Now I’m just the pussycat.”
It was difficult not to ask running’s most clichéd question, especially of a man as philosophical as Kell.
“It’s impossible to answer the question, why do you run. It appeals to many levels of a person. At the bottom there is that possibility of cutting away the unessential things, and reducing life to a sport’s parable. It is elementally simple, and something you can do in consonance with the earth, the wind, sunshine, what ever is falling on your head. It gets away from all the trammels of civilization and society.
“And when you are doing it, you’re doing something you wouldn’t be doing in your street clothes, because you would sense the imposition of society at that point. But when you are running, you expect the people whose rose garden you’re cutting through or clothes line you’re ducking under will also sense that liberation in you. Something about being out there running makes the world look different. It makes you expect the world will react differently to you. Yeah, it is the great leveler, the great democratizer, Toni. And as the running movement seems to be always reaching outward and gaining strength, perhaps it will result in a one-world attitude after all.”
That quote stands out like a beacon. In it we see the essence of Kell, and why so many were drawn into his orbit, and also why the sport continues to draw millions to its ranks. In this turbulent, tormented world, no matter what else we might not have in common, through the simple act of running together we reveal the common face of man, and make folly of the petty distinctions we struggle to erect and maintain.
A man who would have been right at home with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the other New England Transcendentalists, Young John’s innate kindness and generosity of spirit drew a legion of followers. Now, his legacy lives on in the lives of all those whose paths he crossed.
“Johnny was such a beloved figure,” said Jim Roy who headed up the John Kelley Memorial Fund. “So many people were extraordinarily generous.”
The Memorial Fund will continue to raise money, with additional funds used to establish scholarships in Young John’s name.
More information about the John Kelley Memorial Fund and the dedication is available on johnkelley.org.