When their three children were young and the family was living in Quincy, Nancy Dowling and her husband, Bob Bondaryk, would speak to them about the historic city they lived in, and about the city’s most famous resident, John Adams, America’s first vice president and second president.
Adams’s accomplishments are well known: He was a statesman and a diplomat who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and helped write the Massachusetts Constitution. He and his wife, Abigail, their son President John Quincy Adams, and his wife, Louisa, are buried in a family crypt in the United First Parish Church, also known as “The Church of the Presidents,” in Quincy center.
But what few people probably know — and what Dowling would include in her discussions with her family — is that Adams was a great believer in exercise centuries before jogging became an everyday thing.
“There are wonderful quotes on how Adams felt about exercise and about his routine,” says Dowling, a health coach for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. At age 77, Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson that “I walk every fair day sometimes 3-4 miles.”
From those family dinner table talks, and Dowling’s own interest in exercise, has grown a fledgling initiative in Quincy called the John Adams Health Walk. The inaugural walk was last October, and 70 people showed up at Pageant Field to walk the “3-4 miles” that Adams so enjoyed. The walks will start up again on May 17 and continue through Oct. 25.
The ultimate goal of the John Adams Health Walk Committee, chaired by Dowling, is to have the City of Quincy establish a fitness trail in honor of the founding father. The committee thinks he’s earned it: Adams died in 1826 at age 90 — plus 247 days — and was the nation’s longest-living president until Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, who both died at 93.
“And that was without the aid of modern medicine,” says Dowling, who is a certified dietitian and diabetes educator.
Dowling assembled a committee that included her husband and their now-adult children, Elizabeth, Matt, and Samantha; vice chairwoman Jean Shea, a nurse who works for Harvard Vanguard; Rita Devlin, a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital; and Gail Callahan, IT director for the Duxbury public schools and lifelong Quincy resident. Quincy pediatrician Hanpu Chao, and Bill Walczak, who founded Codman Square Health Center, also signed up.
Adams, of course, was their muse. On May 11, 1756, he wrote that “The weather and the season are beyond expression, delightful, the fields are covered.” The next day, he wrote: “Rambled all day, gaping and gazing.”
On May 14, 1756, he wrote: “A lovely day. Soft vernal showers. Exercise invigorates and enlivens all the faculties of body and of mind. It arouses our animal spirits, it disperses melancholy. It spreads a gladness and satisfaction over our minds and qualifies us for every sort of business, and every sort of pleasure.”
He referred to nature as “an old acquaintance” and wrote of the sound of the seagulls, the smell of the marshes. When travelling abroad, he wrote to Abigail of missing his beloved Blue Hills, which have since been enjoyed by countless hikers and bicyclists.
After a devastating loss in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson, his vice president, Adams returned to farming at Peacefield, his home in Quincy. He died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson died earlier the same day.
On its Facebook page, the John Adams Health Walk has posted photos of some of its walks, with the quote: “By following the paths walked by John Adams, we hope to combine health and history.”
No one knows the exact paths he took, but the walking group has three different walks it leads, of 3 to 4 miles each. Two walks include the beach at Quincy Shore Drive. The third, Dowling says, is more challenging, from the Adams houses, through Quincy Center toward South Quincy. The walk chosen for the day depends on the group that shows up. It’s free and open to the public.
You’ll see many walkers clad in light blue T-shirts with the words: “I walk every fair day, sometimes 3-4 miles” on the back. They sell them at the walks.
Ed Fitzgerald, executive director of the Quincy Historical Society, says that Adams loved to walk for both exercise and recreation. He wrote of going from the foot of Penn’s Hill near the family homes to the top of the hill and down into Weymouth, and also around Quincy Square. Abigail grew up in Weymouth.
“He also liked the tidal marshes near Wollaston Beach,” Fitzgerald says. “And he liked the hills.”
The walks were a kind of therapy for him. Fitzgerald says there’s some evidence that Adams had “melancholy, and some psychosomatic diseases. He did pay a fair amount of attention to the natural world, and was very appreciative of it.”
Dowling says that Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch has been supportive of the plan to build a permanent fitness trail in honor of Adams. Members of the Quincy School Committee as well as school nurses, the Chamber of Commerce, the South Shore YMCA, and the National Park Service in Quincy are supporters, too, she says.
Koch says he supports the idea of a fitness trail but wants to make sure it is both environmentally and aesthetically sound. Proceeds from this year’s annual September road race in Quincy will be earmarked for the trail, as well as school health programs, he says.
Dowling practices what she preaches: She gets up early each week day and works out for 90 minutes at the Quincy Y. As a health coach, she knows that 79 million Americans are at risk because of pre-diabetes, or insulin resistance. Quincy has a large number of Asian-American residents, who are more at risk of diabetes than the general population.
She wants more open space in Quincy. “And I never felt they took full advantage of the connection with John Adams,” says Dowling, who now lives in Canton.
The fitness trail would achieve both. She envisions some small bridges, or walkways, over wetlands with Quincy granite markers.
“That land, by the way, was donated by the Adams family to the City of Quincy,” she says. “Honestly, all the stars are aligned on this.”