Johnny Kelley's Legacy

One summer morning years ago, not long after I met and became friends with legendary marathoner Johnny Kelley, we set out on a 10-mile run from his house on Pequot Avenue in Mystic.

We hadn't traveled more than 100 yards when a neighbor watering the lawn called out, "Hi, Johnny!"

A few minutes later in downtown Mystic shopkeepers leaned out their storefronts to shout the same greeting, along with pedestrians on the sidewalk, drivers who rolled down their windows – even the bridge tender up in his tower overlooking the Mystic River.

I, a kid who had just graduated from college and moved to the area to begin his first job as a newspaper reporter, hadn't been fully aware of Johnny's celebrity. Johnny, of course, took it in stride.

After loping east on Route 1 we turned right onto Masons Island Road and prepared to enter one of the region's most exclusive neighborhoods, protected by a guard at a gate – southeastern Connecticut's own Checkpoint Charlie. I had never before attempted to venture into this sacred realm.

As we approached the guardhouse a man in a uniform strolled into the middle of the road, arms folded.

Then he recognized the familiar shorts-clad figure with a mop of dirty blond hair bounding toward him and broke into a grin.

"Hi, Johnny!"

We waved merrily to the guard and passed into a kingdom of winding, tree-lined lanes and million-dollar waterfront palaces.

In another mile or so we jogged by tennis players at the Masons Island Yacht Club – another chorus of "Hi, Johnnys" – and then crossed a narrow causeway.

"Where we going?" I asked between breaths, but Johnny only smiled.

"You'll see."

Soon, we approached an extraordinary mansion surrounded by expansive gardens, elaborate stone paths and a towering sea wall against which waves from Fishers Island Sound crashed.

This was Enders Island, named after Dr. Thomas B. Enders who bought it in the early 1900s and built a private estate that his heirs donated to the Society of St. Edmund in 1954, which then ran it as a monastery.

One of the Edmunite priests, bent over his vegetable patch, looked up when he heard our footsteps.

"Hi, Johnny!"

Over the years I would hear those words whenever we traveled together – on foot, by bicycle, in kayaks or while seated at his favorite watering hole, the late-great Jolly Beggar in Mystic.

Johnny, the Fitch High School teacher and coach who won the Boston Marathon in 1957, competed in the Olympic Marathon in 1956 and 1960, and had been U.S. national marathon champion an unprecedented eight years in a row, died last August at age 80.

From 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday (May 12), Johnny's many friends, former students and family will gather at this same Enders Island to pay tribute to the man many consider the father of cross-country running in the United States. Among those expected to attend is Amby Burfoot, who Johnny coached in high school and who went on to win the Boston Marathon himself in 1968.

The event, which will raise money to build a statue of Johnny, is being organized by Jim Roy, a former student who ran his third official Boston Marathon last month and, like so many of us, has carried on Johnny's rich legacy.

Whenever I run out to or kayak past Enders Island these days I recall that first run there with Johnny – just as I think of him whenever I'm jogging through Haley Farm or Bluff Point in Groton, or hiking to High Ledge in Voluntown, or swimming at Green Falls Pond.

It was Johnny who introduced me to all these places that have since become favorite stomping grounds – sometimes just the two of us, but more often in a ragtag group that included former and current students, stragglers who happened to show up at his house and anybody else that crossed his path. Johnny was everybody's friend.

Tickets to Saturday's event are $50 in advance and $65 at the door. Another friend and fellow runner, Curt Thompson, will perform with his popular band The Village Jammers. More information is available at www.johnkelley.org. or by calling Jim Roy at (860) 941-7683.

I hope you can make it.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

My Favorite Kayak Race: The T.I.A.G.A.T.I.N.M.R. In Rangeley, Maine

Paddling like the dickens last Sunday on Maine’s Rangeley Lake, we competitors had two choices: steer clockwise or counter-clockwise around Maneskootuk Island.

Selden Island: Once A Bustling Quarry, Now A Quiet Haven

More than 40 years ago, Dave Wordell of Salem took his then-10-year-old son, Dave Junior, on a boat ride up Selden Creek, a narrow, secluded tributary of the Connecticut River in Lyme.

Life As A Lumbersexual

I can never remember – do you apply facial cleanser before or after the exfoliating scrub, and then finish up with healing balm and moisturizer, or should you start with the scrub, work your way through the cleanser and then top...

R.I.P. Cecil the Lion: Let's Make the Trophy Hunter an Endangered Species

The international outrage sparked by an American trophy hunter’s killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, justifiably vilifies the despicable practice of slaughtering wildlife for sport – but it also exposes the human...

All Who Wander Are Not Lost: Searching For The Elusive South Bog Stream In Rangeley, Maine

"Head for that tree stump," I instructed authoritatively one afternoon earlier this week, as if I knew for sure where we should be heading. I have learned to exude confidence when giving directions on any expedition, even...

Scott Jurek's 'Reward' For Breaking Appalachian Trail Speed Record: Three Summonses

When internationally celebrated speedster Scott Jurek scrambled last Sunday to the 5,269-foot summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, he broke the record for the fastest assisted hike of the 2,189-mile...

No Swimming at Seaside: What’s Next? No Hiking at Bluff Point?

Most of the time I’m reasonably scrupulous about abiding by government regulations.

Training For Mystic Sharkfest: The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Swimmer

Among the many benefits of active recreation is hanging out with friends – which of course you can do at a bar, pizza parlor or coffee shop, but since most of my pals prefer to spend their leisure time on the trail or water, we...

Stung By Wasps AND Suffering From Lyme Disease: I Can't Catch A Break

You know that funny, itchy feeling when something is crawling around or worse, lodged where it doesn’t belong?

Which Is Worse: Getting Devoured By A Grizzly Bear Or A Great White Shark?

During years of roaming hither and yon on land and sea, I’ve been chased by a grizzly bear, nearly trampled by stampeding yaks, charged by a bull, attacked by swarms of hornets and almost struck by a copperhead – but what...

A Whitewater Dream Taking Shape in Willimantic

Asked to name the best whitewater kayaking and canoeing stretches in Connecticut, most paddlers would single out a gnarly, 2.6-mile section of Class IV rapids on the Housatonic River from Bulls Bridge Dam to Gaylordville, or Diana's Pool...

My War With Canada Geese

Years ago I looked forward to autumn, not so much for the kaleidoscopic foliage but because the evening serenade of migrating Canada geese that lulled me to sleep.