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At Heartbreak Hill, a salute to a marathoner for the ages

NEWTON -- For so many years, he was an idol in the flesh, inspiring those who ran alongside him and those who cheered him along the way as he conducted his annual rite of spring: running the Boston Marathon.

Yesterday, Johnny Kelley became an idol bronzed. The 85-year-old ironman, who retired last year after running his 61st Boston Marathon, was on hand when a bronze statue saluting his career was unveiled at the foot of Heartbreak Hill near Newton City Hall. It was an emotional ceremony that moved Kelley to favor a gathering of some 600 admirers with a show-stopping rendition of the song he has come to personify: "Young at Heart."

"This has been a wonderful day in my life" said Kelley as he was mobbed by a throng of well-wishers seeking his photo and autograph.

The song says fairy tales can come true; yes, it can happen to you, if you're young at heart. As he admired his statue on a resplendent Sunday afternoon, Kelley was Lou Gehrig, George Bailey and Frank Sinatra rolled into one. He was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, who had lived a wonderful life after doing it his way.

"Oh, yeah, oh, sure," Kelley said, emphatically. "I do feel that way. I've just tried to be a role model to everybody."

The effervescent octogenarian tugged at a blue silk drape to reveal a striking 7-foot, dual statue of himself. On the left is a likeness of Kelley as a 27-year-old winner of the 1935 Boston Marathon. On the right is a likeness of the 84-year-old Kelley completing his 61st and final Boston Marathon last April. They are linked, hand in hand, breaking the tape as they cross the finish line.

"That's what this is all about, crossing the finish line," said Dr. Wayman Spence, a three-time Boston Marathoner from Waco who hatched the idea for the project, guaranteed funding and commissioned sculptor Rich Muno of Oklahoma City to do the work. "My father told me it was far more important to be a better athlete at the finish line of life than at the start, and Johnny is a perfect example of that."

By all accounts, Kelley's feats seemed to defy the laws of nature. His 61 Boston Marathons likely will stand with Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games as monuments to perseverance, endurance and dedication. Yesterday, four-time Boston winner Bill Rodgers and three-time winner and defending champion Ibrahim Hussein bowed to Kelley as their sport's undisputed Iron Horse.

"He epitomizes the marathon race itself," Rodgers said of Kelley. "And how you have to persevere in the end itself. I mean, this isn't golf. You have to really endure in this sport."

Said Hussein, who passed up the opportunity to rest at his hotel room in order to attend the dedication, "I know that records can fall and it is very possible for me to match Boston Billy's record, but Johnny Kelley's record is something I don't think I can ever do. That would be very difficult.

"There are five stages to being a runner," Hussein said. "There is the runner, then the jogger, the athlete, the competitive runner and the ultimate runner. Johnny Kelley is the ultimate runner and I don't think I've reached that stage yet."

Although his two Boston victories came a decade apart -- he won his second in 1945 -- Kelley's unparalleled record included seven runner-up finishes and top 10 efforts in 18 other races.

"And three of those seven seconds could have been firsts," Kelley said.

His most bitter defeat came in 1936.

As the defending champ, Kelley admitted he was "a little cocky" when he came up on a struggling Tarzan Brown as they approached the treacherous stretch hills in Newton. Kelley gave Brown a tap on the back, which was all the fuel Brown needed to rekindle his fire to win the race. The late Globe sports editor Jerry Nason, who witnessed the incident from the press vehicle, saw it as the turning point of the race and dubbed it "Heartbreak Hill."

"He named it after me," Kelley said. "I didn't mean to be fresh or anything when I tapped Tarzan Brown, and it was just a tap, but Nason said I should have never done that, because it wasn't right. For 15 years, he kept reminding me about it until I told him, 'Enough's enough.' "

His last four races were trials to reach the finish line. He survived a scary finish two years ago when he lunged across the tape and into the arms of his wife, Laura, who collapsed beneath his weight, sending both of them falling to the pavement on Boylston Street. In his finale last year, Kelley finished in 5 hours and 57 minutes.

That's when he decided he had enough.

"I knew that he'd have to slow down and cut back some time," said Laura Kelley. "I just never knew when he would; but now I'm glad that he has."

Said Kelley, "I'm 85 years old and I've paid my dues by running 26 miles before. I shouldn't have to do it and I don't want to do it because I don't have the inclination."

While the Kelley statue undoubtedly will serve as an inspiration to those who face Heartbreak Hill, it will also serve as Johnny Kelley's starting point for today's race.

Once the elite group of runners pass, he will slip into the crowd and come marching home, an idol in the flesh on a 7-mile leg he hopes will take him one hour to complete.

"And this time," he said, "I hope to get home before dark."

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