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Johnny Kelley's Legacy

By Steve Fagin

Publication: theday.com

Published May 10. 2012 10:00AM   Updated May 10. 2012 12:55PM

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.

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