(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)
2004. On Johnny Kelley’s last day, I was writing about him without yet knowing the sad news. This story told about one of his guiding philosophies, that “I don’t judge success by what I once did, but by what I keep doing.”
By that measure and almost any other, John Adelbert Kelley was immensely successful. His final success was living to be the youngest 97-year-old I’ve ever known.
Walter Bortz, MD, an expert in aging actively, said the ideal life is “to die young as late as possible.” Kelley lived up to that model beautifully. He ran the Boston Marathon into his 80s and serving as the race’s honorary leader as recently as last April.
On television this fall Kenneth Cooper, MD, drew two graphs on aging, the normal versus the ideal. The “Aerobics” doctor said Americans normally peak early in fitness and then follow a steady downhill slope to the ultimate finish line.
Ideally, said Cooper, the fitness line stays high and fairly flat into the advanced years, with a quick plunge at the end. Johnny Kelley took this high road.
A month past his 97th birthday Kelley finally wore out. His end came just three hours after admission to a nursing home. I like to think he decided this wasn’t where or how he wanted to live.
Another doctor, the late George Sheehan, would have described this as “a beautiful death.” That’s to go late, quickly and on his own terms.
My fondest memory of Johnny Kelley was sharing a stage with him, George Sheehan and Kenneth Cooper in Dallas. Three of us spoke. Kelley sang, as he continued to do at public events, his theme song, “Young at Heart.”
It begins and ends with verses that now would make a perfect epitath:
“Fairy tales can come true,
it can happen to you,
if you’re young at heart.
For it’s hard, you will find,
to be narrow of mind,
if you’re young at heart.”
“And if you should survive
to a hundred and five
look at all you’ll derive
out of being alive.
And here is the best part,
you have a head start,
if you are among
the very young at heart.”
Later. I’ll always thank Johnny Kelley for leading me into the marathon. He didn’t know this at the time, but heroes seldom recognize the reach of their influence.
The best marathoners of the mid-1960s intimidated me with their speed. But Kelley, who was slowing by then but still running at Boston each spring, inspired me.
He was older (at 59) than my dad, older than I could ever imagine becoming. If someone that old can run a marathon, I thought at the time, then why can’t I? The next spring at Boston I ran a few minutes in the roar that greeted Kelley, everyone’s hero there.
(Photo: Kelley served as grand marshall of the Boston Marathon almost to his earthly end.)
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]