From the March/April issue of New England Runner magazine – by Bob Fitzgerald
I love to make people smile; that’s my thing. If I can give you that, then it makes my life worth living.”—TL
“Holy Cow!” was a pet phrase freighted with delight and excitement, much like the man who issued it. Tommy Leonard grew up in an orphanage before eventually finding a loving home with the Tierney family in Westfield, Mass. He ran track and cross country for Westfield HS, would later run the Boston Marathon 25 times.
When he graduated high school he enlisted in the Marines. It was at the Brothers 4 in Falmouth in 1972 that Tommy walked around the bar, turned up the volume on the TV and watched Frank Shorter win the first Olympic Marathon gold medal for the US since 1908. ‘What if,’ he thought. That fall, he and fellow bartender Sharpless Jones made their way to Boston seeking off-season employment. At day’s end they settled into the Eliot Lounge on the corner of Mass. and Comm. Ave. in Boston’s Back Bay. The bartender told them he was sick of the commute, was going to quit, they should apply.
So it began.
Tommy would transform the Eliot into what Outsidemagazine depicted as, “The world’s most famous runners’ bar.”
The Falmouth Road Race started in 1973 with an oceanside route from the Captain Kidd in Woods Hole to the Brothers 4 in Falmouth Heights. There were 93 participants with the proceeds going to the Falmouth girls track team. Although of meager means, all of Tommy’s undertakings would benefit others. A giver in a world of takers, he was ahead of his time in giving to charity before it became mandatory.
Bill Rodgers won the 1974 race and walked away with a Waring Blender. Rodgers would return the following year, accompanied by an Olympic gold medalist. Frank Shorter didn’t need to travel from Colorado to Falmouth for what little notoriety a fledgling race title could give; he didn’t come for money as there wasn’t any; he came for Tommy. Everybody came for Tommy.
When Bill Rodgers won the 1975 Boston Marathon in course record time, he quipped, “I’m going to the Eliot for a Blue Whale.” We never knew what the hell a Blue Whale was, heard recently it’s some kind of vodka drink, but Rodgers emailed recently to say he remembers it all like yesterday.
When Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee was on the losing side of Game 7 to Cincinnati in the 1975 World Series, he commented, “(Don) Gullett will go to the Hall of Fame, and I will go to the Eliot Lounge.”
You couldn’t get in the Eliot on a weekend night. The same after a running event—The Freedom Trail, Tufts (now the Reebok Run for Women) and Tommy’s favorite, the Boston Marathon.
The Eliot was plastered with banners, posters, photos and all sorts of running memorabilia. The pageantry was amplified for Boston, the flags of all the competing countries hanging above the bar. Tommy would get so amped up he couldn’t sleep, waiting to embrace old friends and new. In the mid-80s, the B.A.A. designated Tommy as the official greeter of the Boston Marathon.
The charitable work between Tommy and Eddie Doyle, who worked the taps down the street at the “Cheers” bar (the Bull & Finch) was legendary. The party rolled on for a quarter-century until the Eliot was destined to become an upscale fern bar; its doors closing for a final time on Sept. 28, 1996.
Following Tommy’s burial at the Bourne Military Cemetery, a reception was held at the Bucatino Restaurant & Wine Bar in N. Falmouth. Former marathon world record holder Steve Jones flew in from Colorado; Toni Reavis flew in from California and everyone else arrived from here, there and everywhere. A band played and it was loud, chaotic, a celebratory mingling of old friends reminiscent of another era when the Eliot was our flagship and Tommy our captain.
A special thanks to Falmouth’s Jack Carroll who acted as tour guide in introducing us to the Falmouth folks essential to the tribute to Tommy on pg. 40. Also to Russ Pelletier for the updates on Tommy and subsequent photos sent. Most contacts were made at the restaurant and remembrances were kept to 300 words to allow as many voices as possible to join the choir. These remembrances weren’t easy to write; they weren’t easy to read.
When the time comes and we have all vanished from this life, there will still be the Tommy Leonard Bridge over Comm. Ave.; and the Tommy Leonard Starting Line plaque in Wood’s Hole; and the bench and rock garden overlooking the Atlantic in Falmouth Heights; and folks will wonder what type of man would be so honored.
There were those of us who were blessed to have known Tommy Leonard. He was a simple man living an extraordinary life in an extraordinary time. We should all be so simple.
Sweet Dreams, TL.