News of racing pioneer Rick Hoyt‘s passing reached the west coast today (22 May 2023), flooding me with memories of the early years of the running boom in Boston. During those halcyon days, Rick and his dad, Dick, were prominent members of the local running community long before they became icons to the world at large.
Seeing Dick push his son Rick in a wheelchair was a common sight at races around the area in the late 1970s. Born with cerebral palsy, which left him a quadriplegic, Rick may have been an invalid physically, but inside beat the heart of a competitive athlete. The first words he ever spoke via a computerized voice program were, “go, Bruins”, in reference to his hometown NHL hockey team.
It was as a teen that Rick first enjoined his father to push him in a charity run for a lacrosse player who had been left paralyzed in an accident.
I can still remember Dick and Rick at the WAQY 102 5-Miler out in Springfield, Mass. in the days when a color TV was first prize. Greater Boston TC star Greg Meyer and Minnesota’s Olympian Garry Bjorklund battled it out for the tube.
Back then, it wasn’t unusual for the Hoyts to come through the first mile split hard on the heels of the lead pack. They hadn’t entered merely to take part, but to compete.
“When I’m running,” Rick famously said, “I don’t feel handicapped.”
Through the years, the Hoyts special bond brought them through 32 Boston Marathons, 1981 – 2014. They became as recognizable and celebrated as Old John Kelley. But it wasn’t just the big races or even just foot races they took part in. The Hoyts competed in races long and short, in duathlons, even the Ironman Triathlon. Rick’s enduring motto was “yes you can.”
Rick was a pioneer off the roads as well. After his mom Judy taught her son the alphabet, then lobbied to change laws that allowed Rick to be educated in regular schools, he advanced to become the first student with severe cerebral palsy to graduate from Boston University in 1993 with a degree in special education.
Mom Judy passed in 2010, father Dick in March 2021 at age 80, the same year their son retired from racing. Rick died on Monday at age 61 from complications with his respiratory system, according to the Hoyt Foundation.
Rick’s death arrived on the same week the inaugural Dick Hoyt Memorial Road race is scheduled to take place in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the start line town of the Boston Marathon where a statue of the Hoyts stands across from the town common.
I didn’t know the Hoyts well, only as a competitor and reporter. But I could see their impact and understood all too well what they represented to thousands of people in New England and beyond.
You see, I once knew a family in St. Louis made up of two parents, seven children, and a droopy-eyed, slobbery-jowled Bassett Hound.
Six of the family’s children I once knew had been memorialized in a painting that hung in a gilded frame above a chenille-covered couch in their fine brick house, along a grassy suburban way.
Each child in the frame glowed, golden-haired, and brilliant of smile; three girls and three boys, arranged by age, all in a row, their hair brushed neatly beneath a mother’s persuading hand.
Like a poster promising a future as bright as their smiles, the painting of the family I once knew in St. Louis reflected the country at the crest of the American century, when the high rising sun of prosperity banished every shadow, every worry, save the abstract notion of the Soviet nuclear threat.
But for all its gilded perfection, this portrait of the family I once knew in St. Louis hung incomplete above the chenille-covered couch in the fine brick house, along the grassy suburban way. Absent its frame was a single member of the family whose image never felt the reflected wonder of the artist’s brush, whose smile never gleamed, whose future never bore the bright promise afforded his younger, golden siblings.
The child missing from the painting, above the chenille-covered couch in the fine brick house, was, in fact, incapable of standing in a row beside his golden sisters and brothers. And what abundant smiles he offered shared no reference with those of his idealized siblings.
This oldest brother of those perfectly captured smiles in the painting that hung so proudly above the chenille-covered couch in the fine brick house, along the grassy suburban way was born with severe cerebral palsy in the early 1940s, a time when that affliction was yet to be fully understood.
His name was Billie, and though first-born, he didn’t make it to the portrait above the chenille-covered couch, beside the perfect smiles, all in a row. Children who weren’t perfect weren’t memorialized in art at that time. Instead, they often found themselves shunted to institutions, which is where doctors advised Billie be sent.
“He will never be able to look out for himself,” they told his parents. Nor, they concluded, would he in all likelihood survive to the age of twenty.
But his father, a first-generation American of immigrant parents, who worked hard and was proud to be such a good provider, brought his family up from a cramped apartment in the city, to the fine brick house, on the grassy suburban way. He and his wife – like Dick and Judy Hoyt 20 years later – took their own counsel rather than that of the doctors.
“I’ll earn the money to support us,” he declared.
“And I will stay home and care for him,” replied his equally resolute wife.
“And we will never look back and question our decision,” they agreed.
Six more children would fill out the family I once knew in St. Louis, all with perfect smiles, if imperfect souls. And together they lived as families do, at times happy, at other times troubled, within their fine brick house, along the grassy suburban way, which is where I first met them in the spring of 1970, when I came to call upon their second daughter.
In the fashion of the day, I wore my hair long and my attitude short in Whitman-like communion with a generation that viewed conformity as emblematic of society’s ills.
In the fine brick house, on the grassy suburban way, I rarely found common ground with the parents of this family I once knew in St. Louis, nor could they ever reconcile me.
It was a time of generational change, a pivot point in American history as the Tom Brokaw-dubbed Greatest Generation that had been shaped by Depression and steeled by war, felt challenged by the rising Me Generation, for whom personal growth was the siren’s call.
Thus, for the parents of the family I once knew in St. Louis, my presence and presentation: long hair, cutoff jeans, sandaled feet, and untempered tongue represented an affront to their embrace of normative post-war success. For they were a family that had known hard times, and now, having succeeded to a fine brick house on a grassy suburban way, wanted more for their children than what long, freak-flag hair implied.
A first sighting of Billie could be shocking, as he sat queerly upon a towel on the chenille-covered couch in the fine brick house, along the grassy suburban way. You tried not to stare, but it was difficult not to.
Like a Picasso painting come to life, Billie slumped, bent to one side by the curvature of his spine. Draped in a plain white tee-shirt, and bundled below in a diaper, his meatless, reed-thin legs dangled as if cruelly switched at birth, right for left and vice versa. His oversized head rested awkwardly atop his twisted, emaciated body, though his face often broke into a fractured smile, canted in a lopsided, cubist-drawn way.
“Billie Bender” his three brothers called him in their heartless adolescence. Billie never spoke a word, nor walked a step. At the family table, his mother would spoon-feed him, while speaking as if he was fully responsible for all his actions.
“Billie, stop it,” she would say whenever food would fall helplessly from his mouth onto his bib, even as an impish smile would betray itself across his off-kilter face. “Now eat your peas!”
Sadly, no one realized at the time that trapped within that disfigured, wasted body was the semblance of an unfettered mind. Cerebral palsy had yet to be fully understood. But though gaunt and macabre on the outside, Billie’s innate inner sweetness began to reveal itself the more I visited.
After several weeks, whenever I’d come into the fine brick house along the grassy suburban way, he would utter his guttural greeting, while stamping his feet until I’d come over to the chenille-covered couch and rub his burr head to say hello, causing him to break into that lopsided, broken tombstone grin of his.
Over time, I came to care for Billie, and I believe, he for me, though at first our bonding was based on my disengagement from his parents. With him, I found an easy camaraderie, just a couple of outsiders hanging out. And all he ever requested through unspoken communication was no sports on TV.
Whenever a game would come on, he would bang his malformed feet on the ground and let out a throaty, disconsolate grunt until I turned the channel. I only wish he had lived long enough to have seen the Jerry Springer Show. He would have loved seeing so many others twisted by fate.
Not too many tears after I entered this family I once knew in St. Louis, I moved to another city far, far away to begin life anew without their second daughter. In the ensuing years, I managed to see Billie on rare visits home until his death in 1984. With the love and attention of his parents, Billie lived more than twice the years predicted by his doctors, finally succumbing to the same “complications with his respiratory system” that took Rick Hoyt.
Only the immediate family attended Billie’s burial. His mother read over his grave. The news of his passing was initially kept from me, because I was in Los Angeles covering the 1984 Olympics, and my ex-wife didn’t want to inhibit my working trip.
Later, I was told that the family I once knew in St. Louis, whose parents so disapproved of me from their redoubt in the fine brick house on the grassy suburban way, wished that I had been at Billie’s burial, too, for I had been Billie’s one true outside friend, and he had been mine.
Time has a way of separating us from our past. As the years went by, I no longer saw the family I once knew in St. Louis. They had long since sold the fine brick house on the grassy suburban way. My ex-father-in-law passed in 2005, his wife joined him late in 2012 at age 93, then their second daughter followed in February 2020.
Yet despite what personal differences we might have had long ago, their care for Billie became the defining characteristic by which I would always choose to remember this family I once knew in St. Louis.
No, the promise of those gleaming smiles first captured on canvas by the artist over 60 years ago never fully materialized, for “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” as Picasso once observed. And the gild-framed portrait of the six golden children that hung above the chenille-covered couch in the fine brick house, along the grassy suburban way failed to survive one of the ensuing family moves, left instead to haunt the attic of an abandoned residence.
Notwithstanding, in my heart, I still see them all as they were in their gilded frame. But now, rather than six, there are seven, all in a row, arranged by age, each smile its own, six gleaming, one not, each captured as when the perfect six were first hung in a gilded frame, above the chenille-covered couch, in the fine brick house along their grassy suburban way: a family finally and fully complete.
R.I.P. Rick Hoyt. You earned your wings many times over. Hope you and your dad get the chance to meet Billie and the family I once knew in St. Louis. Take him out for a run, help him find the wind. Send them my love.
8 thoughts on “RICK HOYT PASSES, LEAVING A LASTING LEGACY”
What a well written and moving tribute.
Wow, that was so moving and beautiful. Brought tears to my eyes!
At the end of the day all we have is the legacy we leave behind and the people we meet along life’s journey!
Well said my friend!
The personal broader context you apply, Toni, to the happenings of the day prove to be one of the best expresed and most revealing pieces that you have crafted. Thank you.
Beautiful piece, Toni. Thank you.
Thanks for this writing , Toni. It is a tribute to parents & caregivers … and to the two who brought about good via those who saw them.
I usually am able and ready to leave a comment after one of your fine editions. But this time I am just a bit speechless, or writeless if that applies. I am just going to go back and read this again, and again, and again. Thank you. We spoke to the Hoyts often at Falmouth and always felt their bond. Thank you for bringing your bond to us to get even a better look into theirs.
I knew & admired greatly, BOTH FATHER & SON!!! The “lights of the running community will be a little dimmer” without them now…. R.I.P. Rick!!! 🙏🏾🙏🏾