Kelley's life was defined by a caring nature
For most men, winning the Boston Marathon and representing their country in two Olympic Games would define their life.
Not John Kelley, who passed away last week at the age of 80.
Instead, what made Mr. Kelley a great man was the fact he was a dedicated school teacher, coach, husband and father, a gifted storyteller and writer and most of all a humble person who cared about others.
Mr. Kelley and his late wife Jessie are the two most important people when it comes to distance running in the region. Their contributions range from his many victories and coaching to her many years of work at Kelley's Pace in Olde Mistick Village. They cared about you as person and, on a personal note, always asked me about my kids.
Four years ago, I was working on a story about Mr. Kelley in advance of the 50th anniversary of his Boston Marathon win in 1957.
I spent several winter afternoons with him at his store as he talked about his life. It was one of the best experiences I've had in my 27 years as a journalist. Few people could tell a story like Mr. Kelley and I spent more time in the store than I probably needed to. Every story was better than the last. I didn't want to leave without hearing them all.
It was fascinating to learn about the days of elite running before big money endorsement deals, shoe companies and appearance fees. Instead, elite runners had full-time jobs and were forced to accept under-the-table payments which didn't even cover their expenses.
One of best stories he told was about winning a race in Massachusetts one day and being called up to receive his award. That's when he was told he could pick from a group of prizes on a table. Mr. Kelley, who was teaching at the time, spotted a pair of leather dress shoes he could wear to work. He knew that he could never afford them on his teacher's salary.
As he walked away with his shoes, an AAU official he knew approached him and asked if he planed to run in the upcoming Olympic Trials. Mr. Kelley told him he was. The man said that if he was, he better put the shoes back on the table or he'd be ineligible.
If Mr. Kelley won the Boston Marathon today and ran in two Olympics he'd be signed to a big money contract by Nike. I asked him if he ever felt cheated. He said no.
Here's what he told me:
"It's completely counterproductive to say, 'What if I won today?' You have to enjoy it for what it's worth," he said. "You have to do it for more than the money. I think these people today would still do it even if they were not winning money and cars, because they love running. It's the nature of the beast."
Above all, Mr. Kelley was a humble man and grumbled about the attention being paid to him on the 50th anniversary of his win.
If you went into Kelley's Pace you would have to look long and hard for any indication that the proprietor won the Boston Marathon. That's the way he wanted it. No medals, trophies or big photos. There was this one poster on the ceiling that showed some of the Boston winners. His picture was among them.
One of my favorite things to do when I was in the store was to point out the photo to a customer who wasn't familiar with his running exploits. I would tell them that the picture of the 1957 winner was the same guy who was about to help them pick out a pair of running shoes.
They would be astonished. He would get mad at me. It made me laugh every time because I knew how humble he was.
Mr. Kelley wrote this column for years and when The Day decided to have me take it over about a decade ago, I worried he might be upset.
But the next time I went in the store, he greeted me warmly, wished me good luck and said I was doing a good job. I shouldn't have expected anything less.
But the best thing anyone ever told me about the Kelleys is that over years they would open up their Mystic home to down-on-their-luck runners.
They didn't have a lot in the way of material things but they shared what they had with others and asked for nothing in return.
That's more important than winning the Boston Marathon any day.
On the schedule
• The Ocean Community YMCA's 14th annual Roger H. Schonning 5K will be held Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 6 p.m. at the YMCA's Westerly branch on High Street. You can register online at www.oceancommunityymca.org or www.active.com.
• The Lyme/Old Lyme Education Fund will hold it's 4th annual Artistry in Motion 10K, 5K and One Mile Fun Run on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 9 a.m. at Sound View Beach in Old Lyme. For more information or to register go to www.aimroadrace.org.
Joe Wojtas is The Day's running columnist.
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