Marathon and Beyond


by Gail Kislevitz

A Legend in Her Own Right.

© 2003 42K(+) Press, Inc.

The was a petite, refined, music major of Portuguese stock from the whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

He was a short, reedy runner from New London, Connecticut, of Irish stock, jocular, cocky, and on his way to becoming America’s greatest marathoner.

They met while students at Boston University, her Charles Gate East dormitory a mere 300 yards away from his Miles Standish Hall. A mutual friend arranged their first date, and they married in their junior year. The 50-year marriage of Jacintha and John “The Younger” Kelley ended with Jess’s death on June 6, 2003. There is much to be learned from Jess, the woman behind the legend. She and John raised three daughters and eight grandchildren and reveled in their long marriage. What was their secret to sustaining a long and happy marriage while all around them other marriages in the running community were falling apart? According to John, “In the long history of our marriage, whatever we did together worked out; Jess made sure of that. Jess was the real thing, true blue.”

I met John and Jess in spring 1997 when I went to their house in Mystic, Connecticut, to interview John. I knocked on the door with trepidation, somewhat intimidated by John’s legendary career. The door was already open (it’s always open), and Jess was standing in their tiny, cluttered living room, a wisp of a woman with a welcoming smile. John had forgotten all about the interview and was working on his weekly running column for the regional newspaper, The Day.

“Johnny, come out here and meet this nice young woman who wants to talk with you,” said Jess. It wasn’t the first time that Jess had had to keep John on schedule. Already it was becoming clear that she was the organizer and taskmaster.

After hours of John’s mesmerizing tales of the Boston Marathon, I got up to take my leave. Jess insisted I join them for dinner, and we went to their favorite place where everyone knew their name. I felt like I was in a Cheers skit. Hours later as I took my leave, with John and Jess covering me in hugs and extorting from me promises to come back soon, I realized that I had just been adopted into the Kelley clan, a close-knit group of runners, nonrunners, friends, and family who are fortunate to bask in the glow of Jess and John’s affection.

Once a Member, Always a Member

Ray Crothers is another runner who was adopted into the Kelley clan. Crothers met the Kelleys when he was 15 and on the Fitch High School cross-country team, where John taught and coached. When John saw the dedication and determination in this young runner, he took him under his wing. “I spent many afternoons and weekends at the Kelley house. I was in awe of John and thought the world of Jess. She was always so positive and encouraging. Jess understood the runners and would come to the meets and cheer for us,” recalls Crothers. “No matter what my times were, she would always tell me how great I did. Everyone wanted to be around Jess.”

Over the years I began to see and understand the fabric of their daily lives and the tender threads that held them together. During their marriage, John became the inspiration for marathoners around the world. He ran on two U.S. Olympic marathon teams (1956, 1960); ran the Boston Marathon 34 times, winning in 1957 and finishing second five times; and was the U.S. national marathon champion eight straight times, from 1956 to 1963, on the tough Yonkers Marathon course. Although the spotlight was on John, it was Jess who stood in the shadows making sure the light continued to shine brightly on her Johnny.

From the very start of their courtship, she loved the running community. “She took to it well,” John would say. She loved having a circle of friends around her. With her delicate frame and soft voice, combined with an enticing low-key charisma about her, everyone wanted to take care of Jess, but she would ultimately emerge as the caretaker. “When we were first married and living on nothing but our hearts and desires, she never minded the bodies of my running friends strung across the floor every day after practice,” recalls John.

John’s philosophical view of Jess’s affection for the running community was that it reminded Jess of her roots in New Bedford where everyone looked out for one another and friends and extended family gathered together for dinners. John feels that she missed that during their college years, 1950 through 1954, when the world was rapidly changing, becoming more calloused, more materialistic.

In the Family of Runners

It seemed there were endless wars: World War II was not so distant, the then current Korean War, the surfacing of the Vietnam War, the escalating draft, and the emerging cynicism among college students. It was a difficult time for a delicate music major who didn’t understand this harsh new world. When she discovered runners, she discovered a community that was idealistic and close-knit, not cynical. It reminded her of her Portuguese neighborhood where everyone was honest, trusted each other, and had high hopes and aspirations. She immediately adopted John’s running buddies.

John credits Jess as being the glue in their marriage. “I know how difficult my running career could be at times on Jess and the girls. Any other woman would probably have left. I’m too quixotic at best and a loggerhead at worst. She put up with so much. I saw marriages among my friends fall apart. They raced every weekend, and their whole social life was among their running buddies. Many wives quit and gave up. They never took to it like Jess did. I loved her for that.”

Amby Burfoot, executive editor of Runner’s World magazine, was also a part of the Kelley clan. He was a standout runner on Kelley’s Fitch High School cross-country team and ultimately went on to win the 1968 Boston Marathon. Burfoot spent countless hours in the Kelley kitchen before and after practice during his high school years, and after his mother died during his first year of college, Jess became a second mother to him.

“She fed me, listened to me, and encouraged my improbable dreams,” recalls Burfoot. Whereas John reigned on the roads, Jess held court in her kitchen. “Although she wasn’t a runner, Jess put in many miles shuffling between her stove and refrigerator, pouring endless cups of tea and taking care of us straggling runners.”

One of her favorite occasions was the annual New Year’s Day five-mile run and swim event, which started and ended at the Kelley house in Mystic. After more than 100 runners jumped into the frigid waters of Long Island Sound, they were all rewarded with a hot cup of tea and a warm smile from Jess, in her kitchen.

Hal Higdon’s Perspective

Hal Higdon, a competitor of John’s on the road racing circuit in the 1960s, is a friend of the Kelleys. Hal and Rose, his wife of 45 years, visited with John and Jess whenever they were in the area. In a memorial to Jess, Hal describes her as John’s anchor. “John was a free spirit and Jess kept him pointed in the right direction.”

Hal has his own philosophy on what it takes for this type of marriage to endure. “To be a world-class runner, you need total focus, to the level of being almost selfish and exclusive to anyone or anything. This can cause problems in some marriages,” Higdon says. It takes total focus to be at the top. Things were somewhat different back in the ’50s and ’60s when John and Hal were running. “It certainly was easier to blend a family life with a running career back then. The Kenyans hadn’t hit the streets yet, forcing the American runners to run harder and longer. We didn’t have to give up our real life [John was a high school English teacher and Hal a writer] to compete at the top level.”

Like Jess, Rose knew what she was getting into and accepted it. Hal describes her as one of that generation of women in the ’50s who postponed their careers to raise a family. It’s just what they did then. Today, it would be more difficult for a wife to sacrifice her career and put her runner-husband first. To safeguard their marriage, Rose and Hal planned family trips around his running races. They piled their three kids in the car and turned the trip to the race into a family vacation. According to Hal, wives like Jess and Rose played a very influential role in the careers of their husbands. It wasn’t an easy assignment for the wives because world-class runners like John and Hal spent a lot of time training, racing, or traveling to races. Notes Higdon, “My wife provided a level of sanity to come back to; she and the kids were my real life. She primarily raised the kids and maintained the house while I was off running or writing about running.”

Hal and Rose’s efforts to combine his running life with their family life led to some memorable trips. He recalls a trip from Indiana to Colorado for the 1968 Men’s Olympic Trials in Alamosa, Colorado. During the month-long trip, they visited Rose’s brother in Arizona, turned around and toured Arkansas, and eventually landed in Columbia, Missouri, where Hal ran the Heart of America Marathon. “This was a small hometown marathon, and cars were allowed to follow the runners. There were no water stations on the course, so Rose and the three kids followed me in the car handing out water bottles and offering their support. They were my crew. My main competitor in the race was Carl Owczarzak, and his wife was doing the same thing. As much as Carl and I battled it out on the course, our wives were staging their own water-bottle battle from their respective cars, jockeying for position on the course. The kids had a ball.”

No Space for Jealousy

A potential pitfall in marriages when one spouse is a celebrity is that the other spouse can get jealous or become negative. In the Kelley house, although John was the media celebrity, Jess was the underdog celebrity. Everywhere the Kelleys went, people gravitated to Jess and her warm personality. She even cracked the austere veneer of Jock Semple, the Scottish powder keg who ruled the Boston Athletic Association and was John’s coach and mentor. Jess would laugh when asked about Jock’s famous temper and say, “Oh, he’s just a teddy bear. He sounds gruff but he has a big heart.”

John never doubted the two would get along. “Jock loved Jess like a daughter. During the media circus of the Boston Marathon, they were the two most important people in my life. They protected me, cared for me, and gave me my space.”

Jess was also instrumental in John’s running. “She would never offer advice, but she would tell me what not to do. But being a loggerhead I’d go ahead and do it my way, and in retrospect, she was always right. She could make very cool, calculated assessments of things. People never realized just how smart Jess was. She knew the business of running better than the runners.”

When John reminisces about his Boston Marathon win in 1957, it is the night before the race that he recalls with fondness more than the aftermath. He and Jess spent the night at the home of John A. (the elder) Kelley, trying to avoid the hype and media coverage. They spent a quiet dinner together, and throughout his sleepless night Jess lay by his side offering encouragement and unconditional love. After his win, the cameras and news reporters were in his face relentlessly. The next day back at his school, the camera crews followed him around on his teaching assignments. For the reclusive Kelley, this was too much attention and he felt like playing hooky and running home to Jess. “Whenever I think about my win at Boston, I remember the night before with Jess. Those are moments I think about now that she is gone.”

Jess was the practical one, paying the bills and keeping track of John’s race schedule. When John was riding the crest of his success in Boston and Yonkers and elsewhere, he received many invitations to run and speak overseas. He preferred to stay in Mystic, cut his grass, and run with his dog in the fields. Although Jess advised him to seize the opportunity, when he made up his mind to stay home and beg off the promotional tours, she supported him. When John almost quit running altogether in 1956, Jess gave him her support. “Jess was accepting of anything I wanted to do. She just wanted me to be happy. She was perfect that way. I loved that part of her.”

Jess Provided the Practicality

Jess was the one who started the running store, Kelley’s Pace Running Goods Store, in 1980. She and good friend Janet Orenstein opened the small retail store in Mystic, and it grew steadily. Jess showed her astute business side by catering to the area’s high school track and cross-country teams. Over the years, she developed a special fondness for these young runners who came to the store to see her, get her take on the new model of running shoes, report their wins, and commiserate on their losses. The fondness was mutual. Two young runners, Jeff Billing (nephew of Amby Burfoot) and his friend Ben Smith, organized the “WLMK (We Love Mrs. Kelley) Racing Team” for the annual Kelley road race held in August in New London, Connecticut. They always take first place. When you run for Jess, you run your heart out. At the 2003 race, held as a memorial to Jess, they sold their WLMK race T-shirts and raised close to $1,000 for the Jess Kelley Memorial Fund.

Ultramarathoner Ted Corbitt has another take on whether a marriage works in these instances: sheer luck. He and his wife, Ruth, were married for 43 years before she passed away in 1989. According to Corbitt, luck has everything to do with sustaining a successful marriage under the stress and pressure of a world-class running career. He also credits his wife with holding together their marriage and his career and with raising their son, Gary. “I would rate standing around watching a long-distance race as one of the most boring pastimes,” says Corbitt. “Ruth was a reluctant running fan, so I never insisted she accompany me. I saw too many suffering wives who did come to the races with their husbands and children, and no one looked happy.”

Like Kelley and Higdon, Corbitt met his wife when he was already a runner, so she knew of his interest in the sport. Although neither of them could foresee his ultimate addiction to running ultras, Ruth was loyal and understanding and supported him. For weeks at a time, Corbitt would get up at 6:00 a.m., run to work, put in a full day’s work as a physical therapist, and run home, arriving back around 11:00 p.m. His wife was asleep when he left and asleep when he returned. “We exchanged notes a lot,” says Corbitt.

Neither of them were social butterflies. Ruth had a few friends from church and the neighborhood and was content to raise their son and maintain the household. She went back to work after Gary grew up, which was a big help in keeping her busy and living a life independent of his running career. “My wife came from an age when a wife was expected to do such things,” says Corbitt. “Call it old-fashioned, but she did the shopping, paid the bills, did the laundry, prepared the meals, and managed to do simple household repairs.”

The Alternative Was Not Pretty

Many of his running friends were not so lucky to have such an understanding wife. Corbitt recalls an Olympic marathon teammate who was told by his wife that under no circumstances could he miss the 7:00 dinner hour. He had to do all his training late at night to keep his wife happy. Another teammate was given an ultimatum by his wife to chose either her or running. And another teammate ended up divorced from his wife because she never bought into or appreciated his obsession with distance running. After witnessing situations like these, Corbitt considered himself very lucky.

Corbitt and Kelley were fierce competitors. Corbitt considered Kelley a rare running specimen, a great athlete who could have been even greater. It is his impression that Kelley put his family life first and was happy with that choice.

If in fact Kelley made that choice, it worked for him and Jess, as they were able to blend their family life with his running life. In some cases, the two became indistinguishable. The Kelley house became a Mecca for young runners in New England in the 1960s. John’s fame brought them to Mystic, and Jess’s welcoming heart kept them there. His young disciples camped out on their living room floor all summer and followed John on his daily runs. Jess would receive phone calls from parents asking whether their child was among the group, and Jess would reassure them that she would take good care of them. John recalls those days fondly. “I introduced the kids to Dylan and Kerouac, and they introduced me to Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It was probably the first unofficial running camp in New England.”

The Kelley daughters had links to runners before they could walk or talk. The oldest, Julie Emily, is named after Emil Zatopek. Kathleen’s godfather is Raymond Crothers, the same young runner the Kelleys looked after in high school.

Wives such as Jess, Rose, and Ruth learned to accept their husbands’ idiosyncratic behavior. Corbitt and Kelley are vegetarians. Their wives had to learn to cook vegetarian food at a time when our culture’s palate was mostly meat and potatoes. Corbitt also experimented with raw foods. “I had weird nutritional experiments,” says Corbitt, “but I never tried to get her to change her own food preferences.”

Respect Must Work Both Ways

As much as these wives were loyal and true, the husbands were also respectful of their wives’ way of life. Corbitt’s wife was not a fitness buff, but he never nagged her to stay in shape. “She fitted her life into mine, and for that I will always be grateful. I was lucky to have her as my wife. The only regret I have is that I did not attend church with her. I spent my Sundays studying or running. Ironically, she suffered a fatal stroke one Sunday on her way to church. I expected her to outlive me, and instead I miss her every day.”

Burfoot has an interesting perspective on the pressures and difficulty of maintaining a world-class running marriage in the 1950s and ’60s, long before running became America’s fitness sport and weekend warriors ran out of their homes and onto neighborhood roads all across the country. “The pressures on a marriage to be a world-class runner had to be greater back then because no one understood running. It was a noncomprehending sport that only crazies and psychos did. It must have been a tremendous burden on the wives to keep their wits about them when no one understood what it was their husbands did. They certainly didn’t do it for a livelihood, as no one received cash or monetary awards back then, and the health and fitness benefits that running brings were unknown.”

And the travel was more extensive. There weren’t as many road races as we have now. Higdon, Corbitt, Kelley, and others like them had to drive several hours just to get to a race.

In homage to his wife, at the beginning of the 2003 Kelley 12-mile Road Race in New London, Kelley spoke of the love Jess had for the running community and chose a song to show his appreciation for the runners who so loved Jess in return. It was appropriate of Kelley to choose music, as Jess could have been a distinguished concert pianist if she had followed her career path instead of giving it up for her Johnny. Paraphrasing a line from a Beatles song, he said, “The love she gave was equal to the love she received.”

Her loss will be felt not only by John and his three daughters but also by the running community at large. With Jess’s passing, we lost our greatest cheerleader and asset, someone who understood what it meant to love to run more than anything else in life and who dedicated her life to soothing the heart and soul not only of John but of all runners who came to her door.

John remembers the words she softly spoke to him at their wedding: “Uma vez na porta.” She said it in Portuguese during their vows, and the translation means, “Once to the door.” When she married John, it was going to be forever. Jess was true to her words.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2003 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M&B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

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Last update: November 2003
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