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Marathon Legend Johnny Kelley Dies

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Johnny Kelley runs toward a second-place finish in the 1941 Marathon; Kelley at his last Marathon in April 2004. (Globe File Photo, Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

Boston Marathon champ Johnny Kelley dies

By Theo Emery, Associated Press Writer | October 7, 2004

BOSTON --Johnny Kelley, a two-time Boston Marathon champion who became a beloved figure in the history of the race by running it a record 61 times, died at 97.

He died Wednesday night at a Cape Cod nursing home, stepson Dave DeLong said. His death came just three hours after he moved from his Dennis home to the nearby Windsor Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Kelley, a former Olympian and member of the USA Track & Field, National Distance Running and Road Runners Club of America halls of fame, won America's oldest marathon in 1935 and 1945 and finished second a record seven times. He was 84 when he ran his last Boston Marathon.

"Johnny was not only a great runner, he was a great person who touched millions of lives and inspired millions of runners," DeLong said. "He lived life to the fullest, in everything he did, and one of his greatest gifts was always seeing the best in everything and everybody."

Kelley completed 58 Boston Marathons, also a record, and had 18 finishes in the top 10.

"Johnny was an icon for all of running, not only the Boston Marathon," said Guy L. Morse III, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, the race's organizer. "And, as much as he and his name may have been synonymous with running, he was also a true gentlemen in all senses of the word."

Born Sept. 6, 1907, John Adelbert Kelley was the oldest of five boys and five girls growing up in Medford. He ran track first at Medford High School and later at Arlington High School after the family moved to the nearby town.

Kelley was timed in 3 hours, 17 minutes in his first marathon at age 20 in 1928 on an out-and-back course between Pawtucket and Woonsocket, R.I. But he didn't finish his first two Boston Marathons, dropping out in 1928 and 1932.

He tried to stay with the leaders in 1933 but faded to 37th by race's end. The following year, Kelley once again ran near the front. This time he held on for second place.

Kelley continued to improve as a runner and in 1935 ran away from Pat Dengis to capture his first Boston Marathon win in 2:32:07.

He placed fifth in 1936 after taking part in the race that is commonly considered the origin of the term "Heartbreak Hill." Kelley, thinking race leader Ellison "Tarzan" Brown had exhausted himself by the last of the four Newton hills, patted Brown on the back while taking the lead. Incensed by this gesture, Brown soon regained the lead and became the eventual champion. Kelley, heartbroken, faded to fifth.

That summer, Kelley finished 18th in the marathon at the Berlin Olympics. He made the Olympic team again in 1940, but the games were canceled because of World War II. In the 1948 London Olympics, he finished 21st at age 40.

In 1942, Kelley's wife of three years, Mary, died of cancer and he was soon drafted into the U.S. Army. Private John Kelley came up from Alabama's Fort McClellan for the 1943 Boston Marathon, where his time of 2:30:00, his fastest ever at Boston, left him second again.

Another second place followed in 1944. But in 1945, a decade after his first win in Boston, Kelley won again at 37 in 2:30:40. His lifetime best of 2:28:18 came in 1948 in Salisbury, Mass.

In 1957, he surprised everyone by placing ninth in 2:52:12 at age 50. He continued to race at Boston until 1968, when he did not start, and again through 1992, when at 84 he started his 61st and final Boston Marathon. He finished in 5:58:00.

In 1993, the statue "Young at Heart" was dedicated in honor of Kelley at the base of the third hill in Newton. The statue depicts a 27-year-old Kelley winning in 1935 and clasping hands with an older Kelley finishing in 1991 at 83.

Beginning in 1995, Kelley has served as the grand marshal of the Boston Marathon, preceding the runners in a pace vehicle. He missed the 1999 race while recovering from illness.

Runner's World magazine named him its "Runner of the Century" for his contributions to the sport.

"Johnny Kelley has long been the heart and soul of the Boston Marathon," BAA president Thomas S. Grilk said. "Now that he's gone, his heart and soul live on in the race that he, more than anyone else, has come to personify."

From The Boston Globe

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