Most people remember Johnny Kelley, the Boston Marathon champion and two-time Olympian who died today (Sunday) at age 80, as a boyish figure with a mop of dirty-blond hair and twinkle in his eye, frequently seen bounding along River Road in Mystic. In early years he flew like the wind; later he strolled with his dog.
Some may remember him as the English teacher at Groton’s Fitch Senior High School who passionately and patiently explained why Thoreau and Orwell still mattered. Others recall competing on the cross-country teams he coached, or they may have joined the legendary Sunday runs from his home on Pequot Avenue in Mystic that allowed amateur joggers to rub elbows with some of the best marathoners in the land.
Still others may have enjoyed a late-night round at one of his favorite watering holes, the late-great Jolly Beggar in downtown Mystic, where he interrupted harangues on Nixon only long enough to join verses to a Bob Dylan song.
And most recently, legions of runners trooped into his eponymous sporting goods store at Olde Mistick Village, Kelley’s Pace, where he held court, dispensing advice and encouragement along with Nikes and Adidas.
I share most of those memories, as well as countless others from a friendship spanning nearly four decades – including the time he ran 30 miles with me to help celebrate my 30th birthday, or flipping over in our kayaks after snagging barbed wire across an icy stream in early spring, or getting chased by a bull while dashing across a pasture, or running barefoot on Fishers Island, having left our shoes in the sailboat, or riding our bikes to Misquamicut for a quick plunge in the surf, or taking “shortcuts” through briar patches, or plunging from a rope swing into Green Falls Pond, or into Long Island Sound on New Year’s Day.
But one of my favorite recollections involving Kel had nothing to do with running, hiking, kayaking, biking or swimming.
I was seated at his kitchen table, sipping a cup of tea served by Jess, Johnny’s wife, whom everybody called Mrs. Kelley. His three daughters, Julie, Kathleen and Eileen, brought in cookies.
Kel dipped his spoon into the sugar bowl and was about to dump it in the cup when his arm froze.
“Ooops. Hey, little fella. Let’s get you out of there,” he murmured. A tiny ant struggled to keep its footing amid the white grains.
Kel gently plucked the ant from the spoon and walked with it between his fingers to the back door. There he knelt and placed the ant gingerly on the step.
“There you go, on your way.”
The screen door slammed and Kel returned to his tea.
Kel may have had a tender side, but he also blazed with an intensity that drove him to furious competition.
In addition to his Boston victory in 1957, Kel placed second five times, from 1953 through 1964, and won the national marathon championship in Yonkers an unprecedented eight years in a row, from 1956 through 1963.
He also won the Pan American Games marathon in 1959 and national titles at 15, 20, 25 and 30 kilometers.
“In many ways, Kelley was the first modern American road runner,” Amby Burfoot, editor at large of Runner’s World magazine who himself went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1968, wrote of his old high school coach in an online posting.
I met Amby the same day I was introduced to Kel, on a blustery fall Sunday nearly 40 years ago.
As a recent transplant to southeastern Connecticut, I had heard about the group runs from Kelley’s house and called to ask permission to join.
“Permission? You don’t need permission! Just show up,” Kel replied over the phone.
That Sunday, before I could ring the bell his door burst open.
“Come in, come in!” he cried, extending a hand. “I’m Johnny Kelley.”
He pulled me into a crowded living room that looked more like a locker room, with gym bags, sweatshirts and towels heaped onto chairs and scattered on the floor. A couple dozen guys in shorts and T-shirts stretched and laced up running shoes. The air was redolent with Bengay and stale sweat.
“Boys, come meet a newcomer,” Kelley announced, and heads turned in my direction. “You go ahead and get acquainted. I’ve got to go finish washing the breakfast dishes.” With that he dashed to the kitchen.
Though his best running years by then were behind him, Kel remained a ferocious competitor and still placed at or near the top in local road races, yet most of the times we ran together Kel politely stayed on my shoulder, letting me set the pace.
The exception was when I joined workouts with his cross-country team. We ran a hilly, 10-mile loop every day, from Fitch, downhill through the Haley Farm, along the railroad tracks, around Bluff Point and back, usually averaging 6:15 to just under 7 minutes a mile.
I would lag behind with the slower runners, but Kel, then in his 40s, hung with the tough teens who went on to win state championships: Wayne Jacob, Kim Murphy, Walt Blanker, Steve Lamb, Kevin Overstrom, to name a few.
As they neared the final climb back to the high school I would watch Kel slowly pull away from the rest of the field.
That is also how I’ll remember Kel. The cancer that began as a melanoma and spread to his lungs may have taken him, but I’ll always see him as slowly pulling away.