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

Ringling Bros., SeaWorld and the Columbus Zoo: Pitfalls of Keeping Elephants, Orcas and Gorillas in Captivity

Large, wild animals belong in the wild, not in a circus, aquarium or zoo – a point reinforced by events involving three prominent, unrelated institutions in the last couple weeks.

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Plunging into Icy Fishers Island Sound at the Annual New Year's Day Run-Swim

Look, I’m not going to lie: While some longtime participants in one of southeastern Connecticut’s most enduring, challenging and madcap traditions insist that plunging into icy water after a run on Jan. 1 is a refreshing and...

No Such Thing as Too Much Fun: A Great 2016; Hopes for an Even Better 2017

When it comes to adventurous fun my philosophy has always been too much is never enough, so when I look back at the highlights of the past 12 months, as I typically do when the calendar is about to flip, I can honestly say that 2016 was a...

Hey, Has Anybody Else Noticed It's Gotten A Little Chilly?

I guess I first realized the temperature had dropped a few degrees when I went out for a 5-mile run this morning and noticed that my eyelids had started to freeze shut, which loyal readers will recognize as Level IV on the Fagin Frigidity Index,...

Granola Munchers Vs. Snickers Gobblers: Conflict Over Plans for a Hotel on New Hampshire's Mount Washington

The first time friends and I trudged up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in winter the frozen peak might as well have been Antarctica – hurricane-force winds and blinding snow battered us, the only climbers that day atop the highest...

How to Build a Stone Wall in 14,863 Easy Steps

I realized long ago that you’re never really finished building a stone wall, even after you’ve dragged and hefted into place what seemed like the final boulder, exhaled mightily and stepped back to admire your work.

Just in Time for the Holidays: Fagin's Annual Gift Catalogue for the Discerning Outdoorsman and Outdoorswoman

How often does this happen to you: You’re merrily tearing through the woods in your four-wheeler and come to what looks like a shallow stream but turns out to be a deep, water-filled ditch, so your beloved machine sinks like a stone beneath...

Arduous Autumn

In spring we crawl out of our cocoons and celebrate bursting rejuvenation; in summer we play outside from dawn to dusk; during the dark, frigid winter we hunker down like hibernating bears – which leaves fall, when we try to set aside time...

Chain Saw? We Don't Need No Stinking Chain Saw…

So, did you hear that doctors have developed a new method of performing an appendectomy without using anesthesia? It’s exactly like the old operation, except it hurts like a son of a b.

You CAN Go Home Again: A Run Through My Old West Haven Stomping Grounds

Although for decades I’ve been living in a home surrounded by trees that is heated primarily by wood stoves, and I enjoy kayaking, mountain climbing, building stone walls, growing organic vegetables and many other active outdoor pursuits,...

Utah Rocks Part II: Kayaking Down The Colorado River

Propelled by a swift current on the Colorado River earlier this month, my son, Tom, and I gazed at red rock cliffs gleaming against an azure, near cloudless sky. The rustle of aspen and cottonwoods in a gentle breeze mingled with the rush of...