John J. Kelley, 80; Marathon champ carried hopes of the nation

John J. Kelley is shown competing in Needham and savoring his Boston Marathon victory with Johnny “the Elder’’ Kelley in 1957. John J. Kelley is shown competing in Needham and savoring his Boston Marathon victory with Johnny “the Elder’’ Kelley in 1957. (Photos By Paul Connell (Left) And Robert Capwell)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / August 22, 2011

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Even as an octogenarian, he still was known as Johnny the Younger. “By a fillip of teasing fate I bore the monarch’s name,’’ John J. Kelley wrote after decades of being confused with John A. Kelley, his fellow Olympian, Boston Marathon champion, and road racing icon.

But the younger Kelley, who died yesterday in North Stonington, Conn., at 80 of melanoma that had spread to his lungs, had a reputation and a resume all his own. Besides winning the Marathon in 1957, he competed in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, won the 1959 Pan American Games, and collected eight consecutive US marathon titles across a career that spanned more than four decades.

“Johnny was the first modern American marathoner,’’ Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston winner who was coached by Mr. Kelley at Fitch High School in Groton, Conn., said yesterday. “He was the direct link to Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers.’’

From the time that he and a high-school friend entered the 1949 race on a lark, Mr. Kelley was both entranced and haunted by the 26-mile distance. “I had a love-hate relationship with it,’’ said Mr. Kelley, who made a living as a Connecticut schoolteacher in a day when amateur rules forbade payment to runners. “I was driven to do it.’’

His first serious hardtop foray came when Mr. Kelley was 16 and his father suggested that he race with Johnny the Elder in a 10-mile handicap race on Labor Day in Littleton, Mass. “My feet were all bloody at 7 miles and they hauled me into the meat wagon,’’ Mr. Kelley once recalled. “I’m sitting there soaked in sweat and blood and tears thinking, ‘My God, what did I do?’ ’’

“Kid, you’ve got runner’s legs,’’ the elder Kelley told him. “You’re going to do all right in this game.’’

Mr. Kelley’s first marathon attempt ended with him sitting exhausted on the curb at Heartbreak Hill. “I could see the city down below and I couldn’t get there,’’ he said. “Someone came around with a newspaper extra that said ‘Swede Wins Marathon.’ I’m still in the race, I thought, and the race is finished.’’ But Mr. Kelley was seduced by the lure and lore of the event. “I was so imbued with the marathon,’’ he said. “I’d studied [Clarence] DeMar, [Gerard] Cote, Kelley. I was ahead of my years in my appreciation for the race.’’ Though he was at Boston University on a track scholarship, Mr. Kelley worked out with road racers on weekends at Jamaica Pond. When he tried the Marathon again in 1953 he finished fifth in the best time by an American at Boston in more than a decade.

At a time when foreign runners had come to dominate the race, Mr. Kelley was tabbed as “America’s Only Hope.’’ “We’re America’s Lonely Dopes,’’ Nick Costes, his roommate and future Olympic teammate, told him. “We’re doing this for a bowl of beef stew, Kelley.’’

Mr. Kelley competed in an era when the sport still operated under a 19th-century concept of amateurism that essentially limited its champions to trophies, medals, and expense money. “When I got my first letter certificate for cross-country, Johnny crossed out the word ‘coach’ and wrote in ‘adviser,’ ’’ said Burfoot. “It seems ridiculous and nearly unfathomable to us now but back then there was a fear that the amateur authorities could come down on you. I don’t think he ever got paid for coaching.’’

Had he been born a generation later, Mr. Kelley probably would have earned millions from prize money and endorsements. “It’s all a different scene today,’’ he mused half a century later. “You could go crazy thinking about it, but what’s the point?’’ Mr. Kelley ran because he could not bring himself to stop. “Everything I’ve ever done,’’ he said, “I’ve done with this neurotic sense of urgency.’’

Mr. Kelley would have loved to have had the Elder’s gift of absorbing the parochial energy from the crowds that lined the streets or Rodgers’s knack of “lurking undercover with that lovable flakiness.’’

Not only was he America’s Only Hope for more than a dozen years in the ’50s and ’60s, Mr. Kelley also was the Boston Athletic Association’s poster boy with his blond hair and engaging grin, wearing the distinctive unicorn-head singlet at the front of the pack on Patriots Day, the only BAA runner ever to win the race.

“He ran and won at a time when there was no money to be won; a time when victory was sufficient unto itself,’’ BAA executive director Tom Grilk said in a statement yesterday. “His legacy is that of striving for excellence for its own sake and for the quiet satisfaction that it brings to those with a deep sense of personal values.’’

Mr. Kelley’s role as the underdog Yankee Doodle Dandy, though, became an annual burden. “I had that feeling that I was assumed to be outclassed by the Finns or the Japanese or the Koreans,’’ said Mr. Kelley, who confessed to going to sleep counting Finns instead of sheep. “I was running into that national prejudice. It’s a challenge because you want to prove that it isn’t true. But the only way you can prove it is to win.’’

Mr. Kelley’s only Boston victory came so easily that it astounded him. Once he dropped Finnish rival Veikko Karvonen amid the Newton Hills, Mr. Kelley ran alone to the finish yet he couldn’t believe that victory finally was within his grasp. “You finally can savor the damn thing,’’ he told himself as he turned into Exeter Street and saw the mayor waiting with the laurel wreath, the first for an American since the elder Kelley won in 1945.

Five times Mr. Kelley would finish second in Boston, an experience he likened to drinking vinegar. “Second doesn’t count for anything,’’ he said decades later. “Second it’s, what happened?’’ Yet April after April Mr. Kelley was drawn to the starting line in Hopkinton along with dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of his hardtop confreres. “We came back and back and back to this race,’’ he said. “It was a magnet to us, like our journey to Mecca. I can’t tell you why. I can’t tell myself why.’’

Mr. Kelley kept running Boston until 1992, long after he was a contender. “Which is a confession of an inability to learn,’’ he conceded. Yet he taught a generation of American road racers about the joy of the chase, even though there was little more than a medal and a can of Dinty Moore at the end.

“Johnny laid the groundwork for modern-era racers,’’ said Rodgers, a fellow Connecticut native who won four Boston titles and also competed in the Olympics. “All of us will tell you that. We loved to run and that was Johnny Kelley to the ultimate. He was the epitome of our sport.’’

More than a decade after he had won for the only time, Mr. Kelley was coming down from Heartbreak Hill when he heard that Burfoot was in the lead. “What a thrill it was for me to tell him at the finish,’’ said Burfoot, who was the first American since Mr. Kelley to win the race. Mr. Kelley finished 15th and competed at Boston 18 more times.

“It was characteristic of Johnny’s competitive fire that he was running at the front of the race a good five years after his prime,’’ said Burfoot, now an editor for Runner’s World magazine. “You didn’t understand where the fierceness came from, but he was fierce on the road.’’

Yet Mr. Kelley also was a soulful philosopher and writer who once was dubbed the Thoreau of running. When he was enshrined in the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 2002, he quoted a poet who was killed in World War I at 20: “We know not whom we trust/Nor whitherward we fare/But we run because we must/Through the great wide air.’’

“Johnny had a wild spirit in a gentlemanly way,’’ Rodgers said. “He was a cool dude.’’

Mr. Kelley’s wife of 50 years, Jacintha Braga, died in 2003. He leaves three daughters and eight grandchildren. Arrangements are pending.

John Powers can be reached at