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.
5 thoughts on “JOCK SEMPLE – BOSTON’S HEART & SOUL”
Ugh. Garbage apologies for a man who tried bodily to stop women from competing on an equal basis with men. I was looking him up earlier, noted he’d died long ago, and of course Kathy’s been alive all this time, and still running. Jock may have organized a race, even a big deal race, but Kathy did the bigger and more important work. All us women who grew up running. All because she, and then some more women, and then a lot more women, had the nerve to do it.
I still had to have my track tryout with the boys team, and got abused by some creep on the sidewalk while doing it. My daughter, though…she doesn’t get what the big deal was about Joan Benoit in ’84. Or what the big deal is about her now. She’s never been shouted at and had her body commented on while out running; she ran her first 5k in a mob of little girls wearing tutus. Seriously, hundreds of little girls. That’s how far we’ve come. To the young women now, all this is unremarkable.
And now? Now the Jocks of the world have their panties bunched about trans women. Not trans men, mind. Trans women. Boy, does that piss ’em off. But I can see from here where we’re going, where there won’t be women’s and men’s divisions. Just seeds. As there should be. If you’re competing, compete with people who normally run times somewhere around what you do, regardless of what’s between their legs and what their gender identity might be.
Makes me breathe deep just thinking about it.
I was watching the end of that ’84 marathon the other day, and shocked by how ordinary the women looked — like us! They weren’t the groomed, sponsored athletes you see today. Just nice young women, real amateurs, not far out of college, in those flappy shorts and drugstore barrettes. It’s so long since I’ve seen a race like that that I forgot, somehow, how much they taught us about what we could do.
The phone number for Jock was so hard to get. I can’t imagine now what I had to do to hunt him down and how I managed to do it.
I remember from my old days in the 70’s at U of Fla and the FTC how hard it was to contact Jock in order to get our guys in the marathon. I also remember how scared I was to talk with him. But you had to love him for what he was doing for the race.
How far we’ve come!
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Good memories, Roy. Jock put the fear of God into everyone he talked to. The most politically incorrect man ever!
Hope all is well, thanks for sharing.
There is a new edition of Just Call me Jock by Tom Murphy coming out and should be available soon.
I believe there will be a few book signing events around the marathon.
I have nominated Jock for the Mt Washington Road Race Hall of Fame. Below is my write up.
The inestimable and irascible Johnny “Jock” Semple, a stalwart of the BAA running club, Boston Marathon and the reincarnation of the Mt. Washington Road Race in 1961 on the 100th Anniversary of the Auto Road.
Without him the modern era of the race may have never begun.
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.
In the last Mt. Washington race in 1937 before the reincarnation, Jock finished 8th. In 1961 he convinced Johnny J. Kelley the 1957 Boston Champion and only BAA runner ever to win it, to run Mt. Washington.
“You had no real question as to whether you were going to go, said Kelley of Mystic.” “It was part of your destiny.” Kelley won and is the only Boston winner ever to do so.
Jock lorded over the management of the race until 1982. I remember when I entered the race in 1974 I personally delivered my entry to Jock at his office in the old Boston Garden where he was known to make grill cheese sandwiches on the radiator. Jock earned a degree in physiotherapy on the GI Bill and was the trainer for the Bruins and Celtics.
I did not want to entrust my entry to even the U.S, mail.
All of us runners of that era had interactions with Jock over the years, he was ubiquitous and though he was known to be a prickly fellow his heart was always with the “serious” runners and upholding the integrity of the events and the sport.
Jock coined the phrase “it’s an easy race fellas, only one hill” and he repeated it at the start of each years race to set us off on our way. Although he became largely known for the K. Switzer debacle and was unfairly maligned because of it he was largely in favor of women athletes just not necessarily in the same competition with the men and the governing bodies of athletics agreed.
He enforced the rules as they were at the time.
Jock was elected to the Road Runners Club of America Hall of Fame in 1985 and died in 1988.
I respectfully nominate Jock for the 2018 MWRRHOF.
And the re-release of Tom Moore’s book, “Just Call Me Jock” is happening with this year’s marathon. Good story, well written, and now for a great cause (Barb’s Beer Foundation in memory of Tom’s wife, raising money for non-smokers lung cancer)