A fond farewell: Kelley knew how to dream

Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Mourners gather outside Union Baptist Church in Mystic on Thursday morning to attend the memorial service for John Kelley, the Mystic native and 1957 Boston Marathon champion. The crowd filed into the church slowly, with standing room only inside.

Mystic - "Grandpa, can you hear me?"

"I know you're probably up there in your running pants and your running shoes, you know, the same ones you wore to my wedding," Mariessa Jonasz said, holding back a stream of tears Thursday.

Standing in front of family and friends of her late grandfather, John J. Kelley, Jonasz said his knack for keeping things simple defined his life.

"Who needs dentures when you used super glue to fix your broken tooth?" she said, her eyes seemingly glancing upwards beyond the church roof and into the clouds.

The pews inside The Union Baptist Church were filled to capacity as those who knew Kelley gathered to celebrate his life and share their fondest memories of the two-time Olympian and 1957 Boston Marathon champion.

Kelley, of Mystic, died Sunday at the age of 80.

During the memorial service, an easel held a painting of Kelley and his late wife Jessie, depicting the couple cutting what appeared to be their wedding cake.

His three daughters, Julia Washington, Kathleen Gabriel and Eileen Edwards shared a piece they had titled "Endurance."

"Growing up with dad was always a test of endurance. ... Why walk, why read a book, why eat vegetables, we couldn't appreciate what our father was trying to tell us back then," Washington said.

Gabriel said her father's willingness to "go just a little bit further propelled him into-long distance running."

"You never used the easiest or most direct route to get where you were going but you are finally at your destination," Gabriel said.

Running the Boston Marathon 32 times, Kelley also participated in the marathon at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and in Rome in 1960. In 1959 he won the Pan American Games Marathon.

He was also the U.S. National Marathon Champion eight straight times from 1956 to 1963 and the top schoolboy miler in the nation after running 4:21.8 in 1950.

He attended Boston University and served in the U.S. Army. He is a member of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame.

Amby Burfoot, editor of Runner's World magazine and a close family friend, also spoke at the service.

When Burfoot was 17, he met Kelley for the first time.

Burfoot said he didn't know what his life would have been like if he hadn't met Kelley.

"We are the lucky and the few in this community that got to know him as well as we did. I've received hundreds of emails, some from people whom had never met John who said they would have given anything to meet him," Burfoot said.

He read a list of the lessons he learned from his longtime friend: live simply, desire little, conserve as much as you can, play hard and play fair, read, sing, dance, explore and, most importantly, dream.

j.hanckel@theday.com

Amby Burfoot, left, and his wife Christina Negron arrive at Union Baptist Church in Mystic on Thursday for the memorial service of 1957 Boston Marathon winner John Kelley. Burfoot ran for Kelley when Kelley coached at Fitch High School and later claimed a Boston Marathon title for himself in 1968.
Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Amby Burfoot, left, and his wife Christina Negron arrive at Union Baptist Church in Mystic on Thursday for the memorial service of 1957 Boston Marathon winner John Kelley. Burfoot ran for Kelley when Kelley coached at Fitch High School and later claimed a Boston Marathon title for himself in 1968.
Kathleen Gabriel hugs one of the hundreds of people attending a memorial service at Union Baptist Church in Mystic Thursday for her father, Boston Marathon champion John J. Kelley of Mystic.
Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Kathleen Gabriel hugs one of the hundreds of people attending a memorial service at Union Baptist Church in Mystic Thursday for her father, Boston Marathon champion John J. Kelley of Mystic.
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