Johnny set the pace

Just about everybody who laces up a pair of running shoes - whether to jog around the block, or to race in a marathon - has followed in the footsteps of Mystic's Johnny Kelley.

But Mr. Kelley, the Boston Marathon champion and two-time Olympian who died Sunday at age 80, was more than an inspiration to generations of runners who were always welcomed into his home.

He shared his passion for literature with students at his English class at Fitch Senior High School in Groton. He maintained a boyish enthusiasm that brought joy to all those who knew him.

His reverence for the environment was part of a movement that led to the preservation of such cherished landmarks as Haley Farm State Park and Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton, where he often loped over trails with members of the cross-country team he coached.

Mr. Kelley wrote eloquently about running for a variety of publications, including The Day, where his weekly columns typically celebrated others' accomplishments rather than his own remarkable career.

Mr. Kelley, victorious at Boston in 1957, came of age during the era of the amateur athlete, a time when rules forbade runners from accepting prize money, appearance fees or endorsements. Unlike today's top marathoners who compete for millions of dollars offered by major races, runners then could accept at best a medal, trophy, or, in Boston, a laurel crown.

This makes Mr. Kelley's achievements all the more impressive. In addition to his first-place finish in the celebrated 26.2-mile race from Hopkinton to Boston, he came in second there five times; won the national marathon championship in Yonkers eight years in a row, from 1956 through 1963; won the Pan American Games marathon in 1959 as well as national titles at 15, 20, 25 and 30 kilometers.

Among the high school runners he coached was Amby Burfoot, who went on to win the Boston Marathon himself in 1968 and now is editor at large for Runner's World magazine.

He wrote this online tribute to his longtime mentor and friend:

"Kelley was first, the path-breaker. The rest of us followed in his footsteps. The entire American running boom thus traces a straight line to him, and the road he explored."

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