For those of a certain age hereabouts, the essence of the Boston Marathon was watching Johnny “The Elder” Kelley pass by. The victors already had been crowned, the crowds had thinned, but it wasn’t an official race until the white-haired old champion had come through on his bandy legs, blowing kisses to all.
In more recent years, Team Hoyt was that annual validator when the world’s most fabled footrace was becoming ever more universal and inclusive. A father pushing his quadriplegic son in a wheelchair through eight cities and towns each April was a powerful symbol of perseverance and possibility, a reminder to the world that everyone was welcome at the starting line.
Dick Hoyt, who died Wednesday of heart failure at 80, was a perennial presence with son Rick, completing 32 Boston Marathons between 1980 and 2014. Through bitter cold, searing heat, and windblown rain, they were an inseparable and indomitable entry, running and rolling up and down the hills, always finishing and always with the son one second ahead of the father, as Rick enjoyed pointing out.
“My favorite race,” Dick said. “My ears ring for two weeks afterward.”
But their quest didn’t end at Copley Square. The Hoyts completed more than 1,000 endurance events across more than three decades, including 70-plus marathons and more than 250 triathlons, including half a dozen Ironmans. They also ran and biked across the country, covering 3,700 miles in 45 days.
Team Hoyt’s enduring message was that people with disabilities can participate in everyday life.
“When I’m running,” Rick told his father, “I feel like I’m not even handicapped.”
That had been the family’s objective long before Dick and Rick arrived in Hopkinton. After Rick was born with cerebral palsy, doctors recommended that his parents institutionalize him. The boy never would be able to walk or talk.
But after a physician at Children’s Hospital advised them to treat their son no differently from any other kid, the Hoyts forged ahead — and ran into roadblocks. Schools wouldn’t enroll Rick.
“I was the crazy lady with the kid who drooled,” said mother Judy.
Everything changed after Tufts engineers devised a computer that Rick could operate by tapping his head.
“I have the same feelings as anyone else,” he wrote in a high school essay. “I feel sadness, joy, hunger, love, compassion and pain.”
Yet when he and his father turned up for a charity 5-miler in Springfield to benefit a paralyzed lacrosse player, they found themselves outcasts.
“Nobody wanted anything to do with us,” Dick said. “Everyone stood back. They wouldn’t come near us.”
It wasn’t much different at their first BAA appearance.
“They didn’t want us there,” Dick said. “The runners didn’t think we belonged with them and the wheelchair division wouldn’t accept us, either.”
The Hoyts weren’t asking for special treatment. All they wanted was a number and a starting spot, and they would go the distance just like anyone else. As year followed year, they were increasingly noticed, accepted, and embraced. Bill Rodgers would give a thumbs-up as he went by. Joan Benoit Samuelson would wave. The Hoyts belonged.
“When they first started, people wouldn’t interact with Rick at all,” Judy observed. “They were afraid. They didn’t know what to do. It’s broken the barrier. People have come to accept that he’s a person, too.”
The reason he ran, Rick said, was to motivate people and inspire them. Kelley, who completed a record 58 Bostons and ran his last one at 84, was about enthusiasm and resilience. His motto was “Young at Heart,” and when he spoke to schoolchildren, it wasn’t about his two victories a decade apart but about the seven times that he finished second. Life was all about persistence, he told them. You just keep coming back.
‘When they first started, people wouldn’t interact with Rick at all. They were afraid. They didn’t know what to do. It’s broken the barrier. People have come to accept that he’s a person, too.’
Judy Hoyt on her son Rick and her husband Dick's dedication
What Kelley and the Hoyts had in common was that they were linked to the race’s amateur days when you ran for a laurel wreath, a medal, a bowl of canned beef stew, and the satisfaction of passing an unforgiving 26-mile test.
What Kelley proved was that there was no age limit for the marathon. What the Hoyts proved was that there was no physical barrier, either. That if you had the imagination and the will, both in life and on the roads, you literally could surmount Heartbreak and leave it behind you.