To say his office was tucked away in the labyrinth of the old Boston Garden is to understate the quest to find it. Yet to say his office was the heart of the Boston Marathon would not be to overstate its importance.
Jock Semple’s Salon de Rubdown had been upstairs, past the gauntlet of the North Station bottle-in-bag regulars, and down the hall from the offices of the Boston Celtics for more years than most can recall, and to more thousands than chose to remember, where the workhorse of the Boston Marathon was stabled.
“Well, I’ve been a willing workhorse, so it’s OK,” said Jock of 80 years in 1984, a step slower if no less zeroed in on the task at hand.
Just the month before he worked with the Scottish team as they competed in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in New Jersey. That was in March. I visited his office in early April as the Marathon neared.
Since becoming the co-race director in 1950, Jock has been every marathoners living, breathing, barking representative of this New England sports institution. It wasn’t just this race that people didn’t have back home, wherever that might have been, it was Jock. Only one ever made. Mold retired.
In 1984, his marathon work still continued amidst the liniment, whirring diathermy machine, stacks of white towels without advertising on them, single shower stall, and that black telephone on his desk.
“Of course, my number in the Boston Garden is known all over the United States as Capital 7-3214. I get about 20 to 25 calls a day. So I’m officially the liaison man between people askin’ a lot of questions and the BAA. That’s all.”
Yeah, that’s all. And Bobby Orr, a Semple favorite, was merely an ice skater. In recent years, with the retirement of the other co-director Will Cloney in 1982, and the continuation of Johnny A. Kelley‘s long association with the Marathon, now past the half-century mark, Jock Semple had slid somewhat into forgotten man status. But his contribution to the race, begun in 1929 when he returned from his Scottish homeland to Philadelphia via a 29th place finish in the Marathon, to his liaison work with the foreign athletes in this year’s race, has been more selfless than has been anybody else’s in the 87 years the race had been in existence.
“I’ve cut down,” admitted Jock, who’s best finish in the marathon came with a 2:44:29 seventh place in 1930. “After that accident, I have had to cut down because I am payin’ for it right now. My feet are killin’ me!”
It was the night after Boston 1982. Jock was headed home to Lynn on the north shore when he fell asleep at the wheel. Two broken feet, a broken hip, numerous broken ribs, and a month-long stay in the hospital later Jock admitted that maybe he had put too much time into the marathon that year.
“But they still know that I am associated with The Marathon. Cause if anybody calls information, from Timbuktu or Idaho, they give them my number. And I have to answer them.”
As with most of Jock’s declarations, this one spills out in a combination of irascibility, pride, aggravation, and resignation. He hates it, loves it, wants it to end, but never stop, all in the span of ten seconds.
In point of fact, he has mellowed quite a bit in recent years. In his heyday, it was the Semple barking brogue that was considered as much a part of the Boston experience as the race itself. You knew you were at the Boston Marathon when you boarded the buses heading out to Hopkinton with Jock standing at the door, accepting the $2 charge, and never being satisfied with the boarding speed of the runners. And always with an eye out for the perceived cheater who got his race number under false pretenses
“Don’t tell me you ran 2:18 last month,” read the caption on the cartoon hanging inside Jock’s office, depicting him berating a would-be marathoner about to board for Hopkinton. “You’re a goddamn liar!… And a bloody fat one too!…and make sure you pin that number on the front!… And good luck. Now get the hell on the bus.”
John Duncan Semple was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1903 and immigrated to the United States in 1921. He moved to Boston in 1930 to see his family recently residing in Lynn and to run Boston where he finished 7th.
Boston enthralled him, “that was it, I knew I had t’ stay in Boston.
Jock was a man of his times, and proud of it. As an athlete, he finished top ten in Boston nine times. He was also the impassioned coach for 1957 marathon champion John J. Kelley (no relation to John A. Kelley), the only member of the BAA to ever win the club’s race.
Now a trainer, physiotherapist, and co-race director, Jock gained international infamy for his confrontation with Kathrine Switzer during the 1967 race when he jumped off the press bus in the early miles and attempted to rip Switzer’s number off while she was still wearing it! Women, after all, were not allowed to run back then, so obviously she must have gained her number nefariously.
The pictures of Switzer’s burly boyfriend checking Jock into the roadside bushes like a Boston Bruins defenseman went global. The images personified women’s struggle for equality and opportunity. It changed the marathon, Switzer, the women’s movement, and eventually Jock himself.
The 50th anniversary of that famous confrontation will be celebrated this year by Kathrine who later became great friends with Jock.
“Boston is still Boston,” said Jock. “It’s the Mecca. Everybody wants to run Boston. And they try like hell in the races out in Idaho and Nebraska to get qualifying times to come to Boston. And a lot of these progressive steps I’m egotistical enough to think it was my suggestion. And I claim that the Boston qualifying time limit has improved running at all these races throughout the United States.
“The same as the 1967 thing focused attention on the women’s position in the marathon, and since then they got their own marathon in the Olympics.”
During our 1984 interview, the thing that was foremost on Jock’s mind was the future of the race in the wake of the ongoing Marshall Medoff controversy (Marathon For Sale!) which had placed a choke hold on the race for the previous two years.
“if only we could get the Medoff matter settled,” he shrugged. “There’s a lot of money tied up there. And we’ve got to have it to get a full-time staff. There’s no doubt about it. And to assist in bringing in the big runners, too. But I still think the big runners will come if they get some financial help. Not $10,000 in prize money, and all that. Because the prestige of the Boston Marathon is still there. But there is a danger of it slippin’, and Boston should never lose this. Never. But wherever I go they recognize me and give me more credit than I deserve. Because Boston is still THE marathon. And it’s going to be for quite some time.”
Thanks to Jock, that simple truth remains true to this day.