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Thursday, October 7, 2004
Kelley completed record 58 Boston Marathons news services

BOSTON -- Johnny Kelley ran the Boston Marathon a record 61 times, winning twice and finishing second seven times. He was beloved in Boston, and not only for his athletic accomplishments. The man known as the race's heart and soul had a gift of "always seeing the best in everything and everybody."

Kelley died Wednesday night at 97 at a Cape Cod nursing home hours after moving there from his Dennis home, his family said.

An Olympian who was "Runner of the Century" in Runner's World magazine, Kelley won Boston in 1935 and 1945. He finished 18 times in the top 10 and was 84 when he ran his last Boston Marathon.

He was known affectionately by New Englanders as "The Elder" in contrast to John J. "The Younger" Kelley, of New London, Conn., who won the Boston Marathon in 1957 when John A. Kelley, 23 years his senior, finished 13th.

"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."

Kelley was one of 285 entrants in his first race, in 1928. By his last, in 1992, there were 9,629 entrants, along with television cameras and $418,000 in prizes.

"Johnny was not only a great runner, he was a great person who touched millions of lives and inspired millions of runners," stepson Dave 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 ran his first marathon in 1928, at 20, finishing in 3 hours, 17 minutes on an out-and-back course between Pawtucket and Woonsocket, R.I.

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 again ran near the front, this time holding on for second place. His 1935 victory, at 27, came in 2:32:07.

"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."

Kelley grew up in Medford as the oldest of 10 children and was on the track team in high school. Running was his passion, but by trade he was a laborer at a power plant in South Boston.

"Running wasn't a big sport then," nephew Tom Kelley said. "To see someone running by would be an unusual event. But that's what he did."

In 1936, Kelley was at the center of a race that is considered the origin of the term "Heartbreak Hill." Thinking leader Ellison "Tarzan" Brown had exhausted himself by the last of the four Newton hills, Kelley patted Brown on the back as he passed him to take the lead. Incensed by this gesture, Brown soon regained the lead and went on to win. 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 40.

His wife died of cancer in 1942 after three years of marriage, and he was soon drafted into the Army. The private came up from Alabama's Fort McClellan for the 1943 Boston Marathon, finishing second in 2:30:00, his fastest at Boston. In 1945, a decade after his first win in Boston, Kelley won again at 37 in 2:30:40.

In 1957, he surprised everyone by placing ninth at 50, but Kelley's amazing running career would continue for another 35 years, missing just one start in 1968 after a hernia operation.

In 1992, he started his final Boston Marathon, finishing in 5:58:00. The following year, 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 served as grand marshal of the Boston Marathon, preceding the runners in a pace vehicle. He missed the 1999 race while recovering from illness.

"He was a man of a million stories. His vitality rubbed off on people," Tom Kelley said. "He just had that vitality that all of us desire and few of us achieve."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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