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Dick Hoyt, ‘heart and soul of the Boston Marathon,’ dies at 80

Dick Hoyt pushed his son Rick across the finish line at the Boston Marathon in 1998.
Dick Hoyt pushed his son Rick across the finish line at the Boston Marathon in 1998.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/file

By his own assessment, Dick Hoyt wasn’t in racing shape the first time his teenage son Rick, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, asked if they could participate in a 5-mile fund-raising race — father pushing son in a wheelchair.

“I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go down there and try it.’ I had no idea what would happen, and nobody else did, either,” Mr. Hoyt later recalled. “Most people expected us to go down to the corner and come back, but we ended up doing the whole thing.”

From those first racing steps, the two became legends in running circles and inspirational worldwide as they participated in more than 1,000 competitions, including dozens of marathons and multiple triathlons.

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Mr. Hoyt, an iconic presence at the Boston Marathon who stopped racing several years ago because of heart ailments, was 80 when he died of heart failure Wednesday morning in his home in Holland, just east of Springfield.

“Dick and Rick, they became the heart and soul of the Boston Marathon,” said four-time winner Bill Rodgers.

Though Mr. Hoyt and Rick posted a best time of 2:40:47 in the Marine Corps Marathon — a pace many marathoners will never touch running alone — the teaming of father and son was, for both, more important than all else.

“When we’re out there,” Mr. Hoyt told the Globe in 1990, “there’s nothing I feel I can’t do with Rick.”

By proving that the impossible was possible, the Hoyts prompted competitions around the world to welcome countless others who modeled themselves after Team Hoyt.

“Dick started this whole movement of duos, and Team Hoyt inspired thousands of people around the world,” said longtime Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray. “He helped open the door to people believing in themselves, and the walls of intimidation crumbled.”

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Most runners would be too intimidated to even try what Mr. Hoyt did over and over again — push a wheelchair carrying a boy, who became a grown man, up and down hills for 26.2 miles.

“It’s one thing if you just run the race. It’s another thing if you run it the way he did,” said three-time Boston Marathon champion Uta Pippig, who coached Team Hoyt for several years.

“He was a trailblazer. He guided us where we should go to have more freedom,” she said, adding that the news of his death “is tearing my heart apart.”

Across the country and around the world people paid tribute to Mr. Hoyt, even if they had never finished a marathon.

“Dick epitomized what it means to be Boston Strong and inspired so many along the way,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh tweeted. “Boston will always miss you.”

After learning that Mr. Hoyt had died, Karen Spilka, president of the state Senate, tweeted that “it was hard not to be inspired by the love he had for his son, his total dedication, and his strength. A local legend if there ever was one.”

A retired lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, Mr. Hoyt kept up a sprinter’s pace as an inspirational speaker when he and Rick weren’t competing in marathons and triathlons, including the legendary Ironman in Hawaii — events even more physically and logistically challenging for them than marathons.

“Last year I did 113 speeches. I turned down 200,” he told the Globe in 2009. “A lot of people use us as role models.”

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Busier in retirement than he was in a military career that stretched for nearly four decades, Mr. Hoyt piggybacked giving free speeches onto the motivational presentations that paid for his trips to distant places, always finding nearby schools where he volunteered to speak to children.

“I don’t know how many people get to say, ‘My father was my hero,’ " said his son Russ of Billerica. “My father was mine.”

Richard Hoyt Sr. was born on June 1, 1940, in Winchester and grew up in North Reading.

He was the fifth of 10 children whose father, Alfred Hoyt, was a used car salesman, and whose mother, Anna Jaworski, was a stay-at-home mother.

Mr. Hoyt graduated from North Reading High School. Though a little shy of 5-foot-7, he was the football team captain and played on the basketball and baseball teams.

For many years he was married to Judith Ann Leighton, with whom he had attended high school. “He was the football captain and she was the head cheerleader,” Russ said.

An advocate for children with disabilities, Mrs. Hoyt founded the Association for the Support of Human Services and Kamp for Kids, a day camp that integrated children with and without disabilities.

She and Mr. Hoyt had three sons and their marriage later ended in divorce. Mrs. Hoyt died in 2010.

After high school, Mr. Hoyt joined the Army National Guard and switched a few years later to the Air National Guard, with which he served for 35 years, much of it at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield.

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“Towards the end of his career he became the fitness officer on the base,” Russ said.

Mr. Hoyt might not have made the grade as fitness officer in the late 1970s, when he was running a mile a couple of times a week to keep his weight down.

His eldest son, Richard Jr., was born in 1962 with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Despite dire predictions by doctors, the Hoyts never gave up on Rick, who began communicating in words when Tufts University engineers built a computer that let him spell out words using his head.

“It was like a door opened,” Judy told the Globe in 1990. “Like Rick being unlocked.”

Rick’s first words: “Go Bruins.”

“We had no idea he’d been following sports all along,” Mr. Hoyt said.

Beginning in the late 1970s, they became part of Boston’s sports firmament themselves, entering an initially unwelcoming Boston Marathon. Mr. Hoyt needed nothing more than Rick’s enthusiasm to persevere when runners, at first, didn’t know what to make of them.

“He said, ‘When I’m running, I don’t feel disabled,’ " Mr. Hoyt told the Globe.

The two were inducted into the Ironman and USA Triathlon halls of fame.

Father and son often fielded 200 e-mails a day, and their regular mailbox was full, too. “The letters and e-mails are inspiring us,” Mr. Hoyt told the Globe in 2009.

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And while they entered competitions far from home, and biked and ran across the country in 1992, the Boston Marathon was their race of choice.

“Dick and Rick were a very important historic part of the marathon,” said Thomas Grilk, chief executive of the Boston Athletic Association. “They came to be frequently the most important, the most watched part of the race for many people.”

On Wednesday, Russ and his brother Robert of Holyoke went to spend a few hours with Rick, who lives in Leicester. “It was definitely difficult news for him to hear,” Russ said.

In addition to his sons, Mr. Hoyt leaves three brothers, Phillip of Florida, Herbie of Foxborough, and Jason of New Hampshire; five sisters, Alice Sweeney of Maine, Arlene Lumb and Barbara Enos, both of North Reading, Ruth Ross of Reading, and Kathy Cartwright of Florida; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service will be announced.

“Dick did such good in his life,” Rodgers said. “We all thought about life a little bit differently when we saw Dick Hoyt pushing Rick Hoyt up the hills.”

In the 2009 interview, Mr. Hoyt, then 68, said it would be difficult to ever stop competing.

“We’re not inspiring one person,” he said. “We’re inspiring millions around the world.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.