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Johnny Kelley

JOHNNY KELLEY, who died yesterday at age 97, had a modest way of living that belied his extraordinary athletic feats. His participation in 61 Boston Marathons, despite the demands of a regular job and without the prospect of financial gain, inspired thousands of others to engage in vigorous, rewarding lives.

Kelley was a Greater Boston everyman. An Arlington native, he won a five-mile race from Norwell to Rockland in 1927 and decided to try the Boston Marathon the next year. He dropped out at Cleveland Circle and did not enter the next three races.

But he wasn't ordinary at all. He won the race in 1935, finished second seven times (The Globe's Jerry Nason named Heartbreak Hill after his struggles in 1936), won it again in 1945, and was a two-time member of the US Olympic team. Even when he began a 36-year career at Boston Edison in 1937, he made sure to keep in shape. "You'd work eight hours a day," he recalled in 1981, "and train at night in the dark and snow and cold." Imagine what he could have achieved with modern equipment and full-time training.

Kelley, a classic amateur, received no prize money. He took his winnings in fame and affection. As his legend grew, he vetoed a suggestion that he start an hour early to bask in the applause, saying, "My place is with the runners." His humility matched his longevity.

In 1980, at age 73, he completed the Marathon in less than four hours. He ran the full course until 1992, and for a while after that, a shorter route. Guy Morse, director of the Boston Athletic Association, said Kelley was reminiscing last week about his voyage to Germany for the 1936 Olympics and looking forward to the next marathon ceremonies. He exemplified successful aging.

Morse is planning a moment of silence at the BAA half-marathon on Sunday. Kelley is best commemorated by the struggles of every marathoner, no matter the skill level, who races or trudges along the 26-mile course. 

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