Johnny Kelley: Athlete, Marathoner, Legend (1907-2004)
Most present day runners recall Johnny Kelley as a little old guy, an icon of the past who just finished marathons slowly. But his contemporaries knew him as a powerfully competitive runner, and outstanding marathoner. He was a force in his time—and his time was a very long career
Everyone associated with running, especially marathoning, and particularly Boston, knows that Johnny Kelley started 61 Boston Marathons, and finished 58. From 1933 to 1992, he only failed to start once, and that was 1968, the year Amby Burfoot won.
But he was more than the Marathon Man of Boston. He was a three-time Olympian, competing in 1936 in Berlin, making the team in 1940 when the Games were cancelled because of the war, then again an Olympian in 1948 for London, nearly 41 years old at the time. He was a national AAU Champion at just about every distance from three miles to the marathon.
What is difficult to realize, because he was 84 when he last finished Boston in 1992, is that he ran at such a highly competitive level for so long. Johnny Kelley ran a 2:56:10 at age 58; and that was 1966, 33 years after he completed his first. He followed that with 2:58:13 the following year. He was the overall master’s champion in 1958 at age 50, 9th overall.
Johnny Kelley was in the top 10 at Boston 18 times, and 15 times in the top 5. He won twice, 1935 and 1945, and ran second seven times (five of those seven he lost to Canadians). His 12-second loss to Gerard Cote in 1944 was one of the closest ever until the “duel” in 1982. Boston Globe marathon writer Jerry Nason gave Heartbreak Hill its name when Kelley lost his lead to Rhode Island Narragansett Indian Ellison “Tarzan” Brown (another 1936 Olympian) in the 1936 Boston race.
Johnny Kelley ran two races while on active duty in the Army after being drafted during World War II in 1944, taking leave to do so. When he won his second Boston in 1945, it was only a few days after learning that his brother was missing in action in the Pacific after a B-29 accident. Johnny wrote hopefully to tell his brother Eddie of his victory. The letter was returned unopened, and Eddie was confirmed dead.
John Adelbert Kelley was born in 1907, and grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts. His mother, Bertha, was from Lunenburg, Massachusetts, although she was born in Nebraska. His father William was from Boston. His grandparents sailed to America from Ireland aboard the S.S. Marathon. Honestly. John was the eldest of 10 children, five boys and five girls. An 11th child died in infancy. He loved to run from an early age, and also enjoyed baseball. He was small and quick, and running became his passion.
Johnny never had an easy life, and never made any money from his running. He worked in a florist shop when he won in 1935, and was a maintenance man at Boston Edison Electric Company for over 30 years. He had to use his vacation and take unpaid leave for his 5-week trips by ship to Germany and England for the Olympics. One of his greatest thrills was meeting famed Finnish Olympian Paavo Nurmi at Berlin—and Nurmi knew him.
And he got no time off to train. He trained in the dark and cold of New England winter nights and early mornings for every one of those Boston Marathons while working full time. He showed up for work at 7:30 a.m. at the florist shop the day after his first victory. He spent four summers as a golf caddy in the White Mountains of New Hampshire while a schoolboy.
I recall Johnny Kelley running with us at Boston in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. He had his “starting circle”, complete with shamrock emblem at the start line. In 1990 he started in front of us, with two state police escorts. I knew then that he was running Boston for the 59th time. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to say something encouraging or complimentary as they passed him and his trooper friends. He had a slight smile, but a look of determination. He was a self described stubborn Irishman, and he was going to get there.
I said, “Way to go, Mr. Kelley, go.” In two previous marathons I said nothing to him, out of respect. But at that moment it struck me—he ran this race in the 1920’s; he was in the 1936 Olympic Games, a teammate of Jessie Owens. He ran this race with Clarence DeMar. And now he was there, running with us. He was bound for Boston one more time.
For those who get discouraged with running and racing, consider this: He did not finish his first Boston in 1928, and it was four years before he tried it again. He did not finish the second one either, in 1932. In 1933 he was 37th. He was runner-up in 1934, and won it all in 1935.
These races and the race weekend in Hyannis will celebrate the accomplishments of a great athlete, and the tenacity of a stubborn Irishman. The weekend and the activities will also celebrate both the sport and the region he loved.