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Posted On: 8/22/2011

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'."

Jock Semple from his book, "Just Call Me Jock

 

John J. Kelley—The 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.
 
(Photo: The top three finishers at the 1961 Boston Marathon relax post-race (L-R): 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—like 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.

 

"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—sprint 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—so hot I jumped in a river paralleling the course twice along the way—and won by 25 minutes.

 

And in our racing majors—the B.A.A. Marathon and the Yonkers National Marathon—he 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.

 

Jim 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—The 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."

—Run 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 •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—he's never faked anything in his whole life. What you see is what you get, and what you get is an American original.

 

Amby 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."

—"Arrive derci Roma!" —JJK/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—usually 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—now in the form of a childhood memoir—to 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—and what a delightfully rewarding symbiotic juxtaposition that has been.

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

Rich Benyo, editor, Marathon & Beyond and author of "Running Past 50."

 

"I son found coach Mal Greenway to be a preacher too—of 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."

—The Bulkeley Boys' Unfinished Business — 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•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.

 

Andy 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.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments:
Monday, August 22, 2011 7:43:48 PM by Kathrine Switzer
Godspeed to you, Johnny. And thanks, NER, for making him a columnist. Reading his work was finally a way to kind of sit in that English class that Amby has always told us about. Johnny will sure be missed for so many reasons. We're all better for having known him.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011 11:22:46 PM by Bob Hillgrove
Toe to toe w/ JJK @ NEAAU 15K Championships mid 60's for 8+ miles......JJK got away from me in the last mile+.........some runner a better person.....
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