He was the 1957 Boston Marathon champion — vastly changing the landscape of American distance running — as well as a two-time Olympian, but those who knew Mystic's John J. Kelley recognized him just as much for his humility, kindness and generosity.
Kelley, referred to in Boston Marathon circles as "Johnny the Younger" to distinguish him from past marathon champion John A. Kelley, died Sunday at his daughter's home in North Stonington of a melanoma that spread to his lungs, according to Amby Burfoot, current editor of Runner's World magazine and a close family friend.
Kelley was 80 years old.
A graduate of the former Bulkeley School in New London, Kelley served as an English teacher and coach in Groton for 24 years. He was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y., in 2002, finishing second at the Boston Marathon five times in addition to his high-profile victory. Kelley formerly wrote a running column for The Day for 22 years.
"What a loss to the community - to the community and everybody," said an emotional Way Hedding, director of the John & Jessie Kelley Road Race, held each year at Ocean Beach Park in New London.
"You couldn't get anything out of him as far as himself goes. It was all stuff for you. Nothing about himself ever, ever, ever. He gave plenty of advice, sound, from the heart. It will live on. Unfortunately, he's gone."
Stories were plentiful as Kelley was remembered Sunday, from Kelley stopping his car to assist a turtle in crossing the street to him removing an ant from the sugar bowl at his Mystic home and carrying the ant outside.
Most of the stories came from those Kelley inspired in some way. One of them was Burfoot, who was coached by Kelley at Fitch High School and also went on to win the Boston Marathon (1968).
"I found it was a combination of the sport itself and being guided by a man who was both the best in the country and the smartest, most modern man I had ever met in terms of his thinking," Burfoot said of his introduction to running under Kelley.
"He was absolutely inspiring to me. That just changed my life. There's no other way for me to say it. I don't know what my life would've been without John Kelley."
Julia Chase-Brand of New London was then a young Groton resident and a fan of Kelley's from his marathon triumph who would always see Kelley on his daily runs. She finally asked him if it was possible for women to run the same distances and, if so, how?
"Before too long I was having tea and hanging out with the running group at his house," Chase-Brand said Sunday, remembering the time Kelley helped change her life.
Chase-Brand attempted to run the Manchester Road Race in 1960 and was told by officials that women were not allowed. Having appealed the decision, she became the first female to run the race in 1961. She'll run the 5-mile race again this year on the 50th anniversary of breaking the gender barrier there.
"It gave you a dream and put you in touch with something sort of bigger," Chase-Brand said. "John was beautiful. He was glorious. He was a beautiful runner, and he brought everybody into the whole magic.
"He was the first vegetarian (you knew of), the first pacifist, the first 'Walden' reader. He was just bigger than life."
Jim Uhrig of Meriden recalled training under Kelley and living with Kelley's family, while Hedding reminisced about the many occasions the community's runners spent at the home of John and Jessie Kelley, who were married 50 years prior to Jessie's death in 2003.
"That was running central and he was the running guru," Hedding said. "You'd go over there on holidays and Johnny would never want you to leave. That's the way he was."
Uhrig once helped plan a testimonial dinner for Kelley and said former Boston Marathon winners Les Pawson and Bill Rodgers, along with former Olympic marathon champ Frank Shorter, all came to town.
Burfoot said he made a special trip to visit Kelley two weeks ago and found that Kelley had lost his voice.
"We had spent our entire relationship talking with me listening," Burfoot said Sunday. "Even though I'm 65, suddenly for the first time, I had to do the talking. I told lots of stories of all the crazy things we had done together. As sick as he was, I did get a smile out of him several times."
Funeral arrangements are incomplete for Kelley, who leaves daughters Julia, Kathleen and Eileen and several grandchildren.
John Joseph Kelley was the U.S. National Marathon Champion eight straight times from 1956 to 1963; at Bulkeley he was the top schoolboy miler in the nation after running 4:21.8 in 1950. He attended Boston University and served in the U.S. Army.
He competed in the marathon at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and in Rome in 1960. In 1959 he won the Pan American Games Marathon. He ran the Boston Marathon 32 times, the last in 1992.
Kelley spoke at his Hall of Fame induction of his reluctance to embrace the limelight, calling it the "humbling effects of a larger universe."
Seeking to explain his love for running and the humility that pursuit brings, Kelley closed his speech with a poem called "The Song of the Ungirt Runner."
He said: "The rain is on our lips, we do not run for prize. But the storm the water whips and the wave howls to the skies. The winds arise and strike it and scatter it like sand, and we run because we like it through the broad bright land."
Day Staff Writer Jeffrey Johnson contributed to this report.