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Running’s Renaissance Man Passes Away at 80

A legendary runner and fantastic individual, John J. Kelley wrote two Features for New England Runner – “Meeting Mr. Norris” in May of 2001 and “‘Aargh!’ Says Jock” in March of 2002 – before gifting the magazine with a regular column, “Retro Running” that ran from May of 2002 until two months before his death. In May of 2007, when Johnny was 76 and the 50th anniversary of his 1957 Boston Marathon win was imminent, we gathered many of his contemporaries and colleagues to pay tribute to not just the accomplishments, but the man behind them. Below is the body of that work, as vibrant today as it was four years ago. All illustrations are those of Andy Yelenak. The photos are from the Kelley collection unless otherwise noted.
 
 
John J. Kelley is 76
years-old but in many respects seems timeless. As a high school phenom, he was
named the top schoolboy miler in the country. In five straight Boston Marathon
appearances over a six-year span, he finished no worse than second. He is the
only B.A.A. runner to have won the Boston Marathon and the only runner to win
both the Mt. Washington Road Race (1961) and Boston Marathon (1957). Johnny now
toils at writing with the same intensity he gave to his running pursuits,
penning numerous pieces that include the Retro Running columns that have
appeared in NER since 2001. On the heels of his Grand Marshal’s ride down
Boylston St. in honor of the 50th anniversary of his Boston victory, it seems
apropos to applaud.

 

Running’s Renaissance
Man

 

“I look at Johnny’s 1957 Boston run as the pivotal event for the
American marathon.”

“Young John should be given more credit for creating the line of
college runners in America that starts with himself and goes right up through
Buddy Edelen to Amby Burfoot, Kenny Moore, Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Craig
Virgin and all the rest yet to come. 
Before Johnny there was none of that. There were only us ‘plodders’.”

‰ÛÓJock Semple from his
book, “Just Call Me Jock

 

John J. Kelley‰ÛÓThe
Runner

In a way, Johnny never got his just due. If you go back and
look and the legends in running, you’ve got Clarence DeMar, then Johnny the
elder and then young John. For the elder, his nemesis at Boston was the Frenchman,
Gerald Cote that he’d always finish something like seven seconds behind. He won
twice but he had all those seconds and the Boston press would shower Cote with
attention.

 

When young John came along it was the same thing, only now
it was the Finn, Oskanen. Again, he’d win the race, but there were all the
seconds and it was the same thing with the Boston press. It was hard; here he
is wearing the [B.A.A.] singlet but old John was the local guy, out of
Arlington, while young John was from New London, Connecticut. Boston, of
course, was the Mecca. There were a lot more races here than in Connecticut.
 
: the winner, Finland’s Eino “The Ox” Oksanen, runner-up John J.
Kelly and Fred Norris.

Photo courtesy of the B.A.A.)

 

But John truly was a legend from the 1950s. He twice
represented his country in the Olympic Games, and look at the Yonkers Marathon
where he won eight straight US Championships. Yonkers was the hardest race to
run in the heat. It was just open, hardly any trees, just a baking run and he
won it all the time.

 

At that time, he also held many, many US records for all
sorts of distances‰ÛÓlike the ten mile run, twenty mile run, down to metric
distances which were hardly run then and run all the time now. I look at him
and then later, Bill Rodgers; they were both light footed and moved very, very
smoothly. Most runners go down and then move up; they just grazed the ground.
Johnny just looked like an effortless runner and he had a lot of speed in his
body.

 

He ran the second fastest mile ever run by a schoolboy. He
ran 4:21.8 for the mile back in 1949. They didn’t break 4:21 until something
like 1959. For ten years he held the New England championship time for high
schools.

 

I’d agree with “Jock,” that John opened up the modern era.
He was a high mileage guy but he was a high mileage guy with speed to back up
the endurance.

 

‰ÛÓ“Coach” Bill Squires, author of “Speed With Endurance” and coach of
the Greater Boston Track Club back when America ruled the distance world.

 

 

Racing against John J. Kelley in the 1950’s and 60’s was a
terrifying experience. He knew only one strategy‰ÛÓsprint from the gun and take
the lead no matter what it cost. Since most road races then were between 15 and
20K, a fast start was suicidal.

 

Who could match his speed? As a schoolboy, he ran 4:21.8,
close to the national high school mile record. A few years later, running for
BU, he finished 2nd in the ’53 NCAA XC. (The winner was Wes Santee, member of
the ’52 US Olympic Team in the 5K and our country’s best miler.) Seven months
before this race, at age 22, he was the first American finisher in the B.A.A.
Marathon. Who could match this precocious endurance or range?

 

He was a runner without weaknesses. His rivals always hoped
that difficult conditions might demoralize him and give them an opening. But he
thrived in every element: up Yonkers’ steep hills, over the rough terrain of the
Franklin Park cross country course and the cobble stones of Boston’s ancient
streets. He would win the ’57 BAA Marathon on a day of breathless heat and
finish second, 1st American, in the icy ’61 BAA Marathon. I remember a snow
squall struck us as we ran over Rte. 128.

 

Out of the corner of my eye, on the rare occasion I locked
strides with him, I saw the frozen stare of Tiger Woods and the pitiless scorn
of Roger Federer. Like them he dominated his sport, winning races of every
distance. His margin of victory was most often measured in minutes, not seconds,
and in miles in his St. Hyacinthe, Canada, Marathon victory run in 90 degree
heat‰ÛÓso hot I jumped in a river paralleling the course twice along the way‰ÛÓand
won by 25 minutes.

 

And in our racing majors‰ÛÓthe B.A.A. Marathon and the Yonkers
National Marathon‰ÛÓhe was invincible. Yonkers, he won eight straight times
(1956-1963) and the B.A.A., in addition to the ’57 victory, he finished second
five times, each time, first American.

 

As fierce as he was as a competitor, away from the race
course he was gentle, self-effacing, and good-humored and a good friend. His
speech betrayed an almost painful conscientiousness to be accurate and fair.
Ever the English teacher, there wasn’t a writer he was unfamiliar with. Ever
the philosopher, he was always probing for a deeper meaning to our game.

 

‰ÛÓJim Green raced at the highest level against JJK, including a
silver to JJK’s gold at the 1959 Pan Am Games Marathon. Jim placed among the
top 10 at Boston on several occasions, including a 3rd place finish in 1960.

 

(Photo: Emil Zatopek and Johnny in Melbourne for the 1956 Olympic
Games.)

 

John J. Kelley‰ÛÓThe
Writer

 

“Now, on another
golden autumn afternoon, another bunch of Groton kids has reached the old
farm’s western boundary. A rough mile of railroad bed bluestone separates us
from the Point’s tree-bordered paths. The kids have at last burned off their
early steam and settled into a purposeful, sporadically conversational pack.
They remind me of depictions of prehistoric hunting parties.”

‰ÛÓRun the Farm! Run the
Farm! JJK/NER Nov/Dec 2002

 

Growing up as a member of John J. Kelley’s
cross-country team at Fitch High in Groton, CT, it never occurred to me that he
might be a great writer. Certainly, he never mentioned it. He was an English
teacher; we all knew that.

 

And while I was never a student in one of his
classes, I knew too much about English teachers. They were those people hung up
on commas, footnotes, and topic sentences. They were grammarians, not writers,
and they existed only to torture us students with their stupid rules and
regulations.

 

Kelley wasn’t like that at all. First of all, he
was a talker and big thinker. We knew him by his occasional, short references
to running, but mostly by his long, meandering harangues about chaos, disorder,
and entropy. He never taught us “Kelley’s 10 Rules of Running,” even though we
would have been interested in that subject, so much more compelling than
grammatical rules. But he taught us about everything else, always in a
roundabout way, usually informed by his own personal example: his love of
running, his distaste for following social convention; his love of gardening,
his hatred of polluting industries and automobiles.

 

I was a young writer myself in high school,
sports editor of the school newspaper. Our football and basketball teams were
hopeless, the cross-country team one of the best in the state. You’d better
believe that our school paper, way back in the mid-1960s, published better
stories about cross-country and track than most school papers of the time.

 

Later I got lucky in several ways: The Running
Boom came along in the late 1970s, and a magazine named Runner’s World gave me a call. A few years later, other newspapers
and publications began asking Kelley to write columns or features. Only then
did I get to enjoy his reminiscences, sparkling prose, and self-deprecating
sense of humor along with everyone else that devoured his stories.

 

These days, every time I spot a new Kelley
piece, I can’t wait to dive in. The reward for me is simple. I don’t get to
hang out much with ‰Û¢Kel’ any more. We don’t have all-night conversations over
tea and apple pie as we did in the 1960s and 1970s. So each new article is as
close as I get to him.

 

And you know what? It’s almost as good as a
real-life conversation. Reading Kelley is like being with Kelley: completely
authentic, a total mirror to the man’s soul. That’s why I love the guy‰ÛÓhe’s
never faked anything in his whole life. What you see is what you get, and what
you get is an American original.

 

‰ÛÓAmby Burfoot,
executive editor, Runner’s World and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon in
which his former coach placed 15th.

 

 “Seventeen miles. We execute a sharp left turn onto the
cobblestoned Ancient Appian Way. The tempo abruptly shifts. The race kicks into
high gear. From here on, crowds explode like clusters of nocturnal flowers.
Their cheers must echo greetings bestowed centuries ago on conquering Caesars.
Phantasmic forms dance in flickering taper light.”

‰ÛÓ”Arrive derci Roma!” ‰ÛÓJJK/NER May/June 2004

 

Most of my association with Young Johnny Kelley over the
past decade has been like that of the janitor at the Sistine Chapel while
Michelangelo painted the ceiling. Johnny referred to himself as a correspondent
for Marathon & Beyond, accepted
assignments that I made, and thought of me as his “editor.”

 

In reality, though, Johnny, as Michelangelo, would paint in
words his reports on races he’d won, lost, or failed to finish and I would pant
in anticipation while opening the envelope in which they arrived. After reading
his creations, as the janitor, I would simply sweep up a few stray commas or
semi-colons.

 

His marathoning tales of yore required no work on my part other
than to rush through them on a first read and then sit back to re-read and
savor them, slowly, riding his sentences like a spoiled California surfer
taking lessons from the master as an endless summer unspooled to the horizon.

 

Most of his early tales came complete with a cover letter
with apologies for his tardiness in submitting the manuscript‰ÛÓusually a result
of a litany of real-life shoals that would have sunk a lesser writer. And Oh! Those cover letters, and later
emails.

 

One such apology began: “Hearing from my end of things may
make you feel like a Palomar astronomer detecting the faintest emanations of
what might be light from a dark blob in space.” That line was followed by a
Job-like listing, like beads on a rosary, of misfortunes that had befallen the
Kelley household.

 

The list included anything from his wife Jessie being
knocked over by their genetically clumsy dog, Marcus, to a leaking roof, a
backed-up septic tank, rainwater in the cellar, and a $4500 mishap with his
“practically new Ford Taurus” on his way to his night job driving a cab.

 

None of his life’s wipeouts ever held him down for long,
though. That is, until his life-companion, friend, and task-master wife,
Jessie, became sick and died. But even then he eventually broke the ocean’s
surface employing his writing‰ÛÓnow in the form of a childhood memoir‰ÛÓto keep him
afloat above the murky depths of darkness in which one can drown in life.

 

Like many writers, he never ventured too far from the safety
of his own home. He found such diversions sapped him of energy he preferred to
channel into his writing and friendships. At his home on Pequot Ave. in Mystic,
the front-porch light was always on and visitors were always welcomed. It was a
safe haven where the Irish ale was always chilled and he could unleash his
tremendous gregariousness.

 

Over the years, many well-deserved honors have been awarded
to Johnny. But he’s contributed more than he’s received. He’s opened his home,
shared his stories, and been more than generous with his friendship. He’s a
writer trapped in a runner’s body‰ÛÓand what a delightfully rewarding symbiotic
juxtaposition that has been.

Now where the hell is that Yonkers Marathon story you
promised me last year?

‰ÛÓRich Benyo, editor, Marathon & Beyond and author of “Running
Past 50.”

 

“I son found coach Mal
Greenway to be a preacher too‰ÛÓof another school, maybe. Coach Mal wouldn’t send
his charges to hell, only force them to sample it via the intestinal fires
ignited during his beloved time trials over Bulkeley’s Everest-ian 2.2-miles
road “cross-country” course.”

‰ÛÓThe Bulkeley Boys’
Unfinished Business ‰ÛÓ JJK/NER Spring 2006

 

I first met Johnny and his wife Jessie in January of 1994
when I was planning a portrait of him for a project I had in mind and he
approved my plans without hesitation. I couldn’t have known then that he would
open many doors for me, leading to a career painting the great races and
runners through history.

 

I always look forward to illustrating Johnny’s Retro
Running
column. The imagery seems to pour easily from his pen and it is my
job to sketch those memories. Some days my work is easy, Johnny will touch on a
subject universal to all runners. We can all relate to an exhilarating run
through a snowstorm while training for cross country, or remember the pressure
of being run ragged under the thumb of a dictatorial high school coach. I
particularly enjoyed drawing the illustration of the 1940s coach, complete with
topcoat, stopwatch and stogie.

 

Other times Johnny hands me a challenge, like creating the fantasy
image of a runner’s “Viking Funeral” with a flaming longboat decorated with old
race numbers and medals, or drawing Johnny dropping out of his first Boston
Marathon‰Û¢Jeez John, does it have to be a 1948 Buick that picked you up? Thanks
a lot, where am I going to find that?

 

Sometimes Johnny makes my work impossible. He once wrote of
running a neighborhood race to impress the object of his first crush, the girl
living around the corner. I had no hope of my portrait of her living up to his
glowing description of the then love of his life, so I chose another scene to
sketch. That vision was better left to Johnny’s memory and the reader’s
imagination. I guess I know where to draw the line after all.

 

‰ÛÓAndy Yelenak is the foremost artistic profiler of the sport and has
drawn official posters for the Boston and New York City Marathons and Distance
Hall of Fame.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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