The day after Johnny Kelley won his first Boston Marathon in 1935, he showed up at 7:30 a.m. at his job in an Arlington, Mass., greenhouse.
He was a salt-of-the-earth Irishman from West Medford, Mass. By the time he ran his 61st — and last — race at the age of 84, he was the effervescent heart and soul of the Boston Marathon.
He was the inspiration for the nickname ‘Heartbreak Hill,’ where he went from frontrunner to fifth-place finisher in 1936.
Kelley was 65, with almost 20 more Boston Marathons ahead of him when he said, “For me, the race these days is to try to beat the girls to the finish and to wave to all my old friends along the course.”
When he was 70 he said he was afraid to stop running. “I feel too good,” he said. “I want to stay alive.”
Johnny Kelley, Iron Man
He was born on Sept. 6, 1907, the son of a letter carrier and the oldest of 10 children. His family would form a large cheering section at his races.
He ran track and cross-country at nearby Arlington High School. At 20, he ran his first Boston Marathon, one of 285 male entrants running for the alone. Like the other runners, he took the trolley or bummed a ride to get to the race. The last time he ran, in 1992, 9,629 men and women ran for $418,000 in prizes, including a Mercedes-Benz for the winner.
Others have won more marathons — Clarence DeMar won seven – but Johnny Kelley holds the record for endurance. He won the Boston Marathon twice, in 1935 and 1945, finished second a record seven times and finished in the top 10 in 19 others.
The Boston Globe reported his bitterest defeat came in 1936.
Kelley was a little cocky when he came up on a struggling Tarzan Brown, the mercurial Narragansett Indian who also won the Boston Marathon twice:
…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’.”
Tarzan Brown and Johnny Kelley both went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Kelley finished 18th in the marathon. Brown didn’t compete because of a hernia, but got into a fight with Nazi brownshirts in a beer garden. Kelley would run two more Olympic marathons, the last in London at the age of 40.
In 1940, Johnny Kelley had a job as a security guard at a Boston Edison power plant and had just married to Mary Knowles, a stenographer he met on the streetcar. Shortly after their second wedding anniversary, Mary collapsed and died three days later of cancer. Running, he said, helped him get through it.
Johnny Kelley got drafted in 1942, married briefly a second time and still ran the Boston Marathon. He went back to work at the power plant in mechanical maintenance.
He won his second Boston Marathon in 1945. In 1946, an undernourished Greek named Stylianos Kyiarides came from behind to beat him. Kelley graciously hugged Kyiarides at the finish.
He took up painting in his 50s, producing about 20 seascapes and landscapes a year and selling most of them. In 1972, he retired from Boston Edison and moved to East Dennis, Mass., with his third wife, Laura Harlow.
In 1991, at the age of 83, he fell into Laura’s arms after finishing the race. The two crashed to the pavement. He still hadn’t had enough. The next year it took him 5 hours and 57 minutes to finish the race, and he decided he needed to get home before dark. For the next two years, he only ran the last seven miles of the Marathon, starting at Heartbreak Hill. Finally, he retired in 1995.
He had run 112 marathons, winning one refrigerator, 22 diamond rings, 118 watches and no money.
In 1995, the first year of his retirement from running, he rode in a convertible at the head of the race as its grand marshal. Four years later, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and missed the race. He sent a tape to the champions’ breakfast before the race of his singing, Young at Heart.
A 7-foot bronze statue of Johnny Kelley was unveiled in 1993, about a mile from the base of Heartbreak Hill on the Marathon course in Newton, Mass. The statue is actually two likenesses of Kelley: one of him as a 27-year-old winning the Boston Marathon in 1935, the other of him as an 84-year-old finishing his 61st and last marathon. They hold hands as they break the tape crossing the finish line.
Johnny Kelley died at the age of 97 on Oct. 6, 2004 in a Cape Cod nursing home. He is buried in East Dennis, Mass.
This story about Johnny Kelley was updated in 2018.