Johnny A. Kelley
Honor the Elder
by Lizzie Wann
Boston has its share of legends. Curses have been cast and reversed and new history is made every day. In the lore of the Boston Marathon, there have been many who have left their mark in the race's annals, Clarence DeMar...Bill Rodgers...Bobbi Gibb. But maybe none is more worthy of the title "Legend" as John A. Kelley.
Johnny A. Kelley, also known as Johnny the Elder, saw his first B.A.A. Boston Marathon at the age of 12 and fell in love with it. But he didn't pursue running initially. From an interview with Kelley in 2000, he explained, "I was a baseball player first. I played left field. Then one day, I ran a half-mile race and became a runner." Holding the record for most Boston Marathons started (61) and finished (58), (of the 3 DNF races, Kelley said, "I was tired and too young."), this stunning record is but one of the many incredible achievements for Kelley.
He ran his first Boston Marathon in 1928 and won the race in 1935 (2:32:07) and, at age 37, in 1945 (2:30:40). He placed second a record seven times and at 84 years young, ran his last Boston Marathon in 1992. After those running years, he served as Grand Marshal of the race from 1995-2004. Kelley also ran the Yonkers, New York marathon 15 times and won it in 1935 and 1950.
Additionally, he ran the marathon for the U.S. Olympic teams that competed in Berlin, 1936 and London, 1948, and was also a member of the 'mythical' team of 1940 that did not compete due to the war. Kelley considered some of his most memorable running moments to be participating in those Games. "To represent the U.S.A. was a great thrill and a big honor."
In 2000, Kelley was named "Runner of the Century" by Runner's World Magazine. That same year, on the morning of the start of the 104th running of the Boston Marathon, he was inducted into the Road Runner Sports Run of Fame.
All of these things helped define Kelley as a runner. But the Boston Marathon history that he contributed to is beyond measure. In the 1936 race, Ellison "Tarzan" Brown, set off on a very early, very fast pace to lead the race. Racing through the last of what is known as the Newton Hills, Kelley caught up to Brown and as a friendly gesture gave him a tap on the shoulder. This gesture inspired Brown to surge back into the lead and to eventually win the race. It was on that last of Newton's hills, as Brown resumed the lead, that Kelley's heart was broken. Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason thus christened the legendary "Heartbreak Hill."
Outside of running, Kelley retired from the Boston Edison Company in 1973, where he'd worked as an electrical maintenance man, and was a professional artist who painted in oils and watercolors. Kelley died in October, 2004 at the age of 97.
The legend that was Johnny A. Kelley continues to inspire runners and running aficionados around the world to keep in mind an ideal that often served as a theme song for Kelley, which he was often asked to sing at functions. Perhaps the way legends are made is to stay "Young at Heart."
Some of the information above originally appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Fitness Runner.