5:53 PM EST, November 30, 2013
MYSTIC — When John Kelley was still alive, his former student and runner Jim Roy was already thinking about a statue commemorating his mentor.
He thought about running it by Kelley, but then scratched the idea. Kelley, the 1957 Boston Marathon champion, two-time Olympian and six-time Manchester Road Race winner, would have been mortified.
"He would say no," said Roy. "What great champion would subscribe to their own statue?"
Kelley, a Fitch High English teacher and track and cross country coach who inspired thousands of local runners including 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot, died in August 2011 of melanoma at age 80. Roy — who graduated from Fitch in 1978, still lives in Mystic and continues to run — wanted to honor him.
"I've asked his daughters," he said. "They think it's a good thing. It's not for Johnny, it's for us, for the living."
The statue will be placed in a small clearing with benches, next to Mystic Pizza. On Friday, watching people take pictures outside Mystic Pizza (made famous by the Julia Roberts' movie), Roy enthused about the location because the Kelley statue would be in the background of so many of those photos in the future. It will depict Kelley running with one of his beloved golden retrievers.
Roy met Kelley in his sophomore year, back when Fitch was a three-year school. Kelley was his cross country coach, and Roy had him for English.
"He had a very unconventional way of teaching," Roy said. "He called it the Kelley Word Game. He would have the dictionary, read the definition and give you the first letter of the word. The students would chime in, keep score on the board. Unassigned periods, I would attend his class just because it was so fun."
"He had a way with students. He kept a lot of us that weren't academically charged involved in school. I had him for two years in English. I would always go to his class when I had time. Other teachers might make you sit in the chair. Kell would allow you to sit on the desk."
Kelley was an unconventional coach as well. In the 1960s, Burfoot remembered his coach taking the runners on long trail runs, considered unorthodox then by high school standards. They ran in the snow and the rain, through mud and streams. Sometimes in the winter, they would go back to Kelley's house on Pequot Avenue, where Kelley's wife, Jessie, was waiting with cups of tea. And they would sit around the kitchen table and talk about politics, the environment, Bob Dylan.
"He was an absolute role model," Burfoot said in 2002 when Kelley was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame. "Particularly in the running field, but also in the world of ecology, environmentalism, organic gardening, nutrition, personal ethics."
Kelley taught and coached for 24 years, retiring in 1980. He had three daughters and eight grandchildren. Jessie died in 2003. They were married for 50 years.
Not only did Kelley inspire Burfoot, but his running inspired Dr. Julia Chase-Brand, who in 1961 became the first woman to break the gender barrier at the Manchester Road Race. Chase-Brand had seen Kelley running around a golf course and wanted to be a runner. Kelley, who was training for the Boston Marathon, didn't have time to coach but referred Chase-Brand to his friend, George Terry. Terry helped Chase-Brand run, back when girls weren't allowed to compete.
Chase-Brand, who lives in New London, became close friends with Kelley and his family through the years. She is on the John Kelley Memorial Fund committee.
"He was just a neat person," Chase-Brand said. "Very funny, very giving, wry sense of humor. As we all came along, he and Jess just took us in, we could come over and have a cup of tea, talk about this and that. Or we'd meet and go for a run. Jump into a car on the weekend, Kelley and Terry, Ray Crothers, Norm Higgins, and we'd end up in these little towns in New England. It was wonderful."
"For me, personally, I have no idea who I would have turned into if I had not been part of the Kelley crew. It opened up all kinds of possibilities. Life was an adventure."
Originally, the committee wanted to raise $100,000 for the bronze statue, but Roy just commissioned sculptor Brian Hanlon of Toms River, N.J., who said he would donate his time and just charge for the materials. So far, $48,000 has been raised and the goal now is $75,000.
The Boston Athletic Association (of which Kelley was a member back in his heyday) donated money and Boston Marathon charitable entries. The Manchester Road Race has made donations the past two years.
But it's mostly people sending in $50 here and there, along with personal notes about what Kelley meant to them.
"There's been no forcing, no hard-level sell on this project," Roy said. "John would not have wanted that. It's like his race [the John and Jessie Kelley 11.6-miler in August, which is free to enter]. People have said to me, 'Hey, that's a great opportunity, if you charge for the race…'"
"No, that would totally go against this whole mission. Kell would not like that. We've been very sensitive to that. We were asked by corporations, if you put the Nike swoosh on him or whatever — we never said never — but we don't want to do that because it compromises it. John would not want that."
The statue is expected to be completed sometime next year. Chase-Brand was asked for Kelley's reaction about a statue in downtown Mystic.
"He would have said, 'Oh, no, no, no, no,'" Chase-Brand said. "'Oh God, no.' But he would have been secretly pleased. Or maybe not. But it's our time now to be pleased."
To donate or to learn more about the statue, go to http://www.johnkelley.org.
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