She had a last name but didn’t need one. For years there wasn’t another woman around the Boston Athletic Association, which was founded as a men’s club in 1887 complete with a Turkish bath and billiards room and whose members were in no hurry to change.
It was Gloria Ratti who transformed the way that the tradition-bound BAA did business just by being herself. She was gracious but persistent. She was an amateur yet a dedicated professional. And she was a common-sense visionary who had a gift for nudging people toward progress without shoving them.
Ratti, who died at 90 on Saturday, loved the Boston Marathon and all of its quirky history but also recognized that the race needed to come into the modern world or risk becoming a dusty antique as so many of the city’s institutions had.
“The people who worked on State Street sat at their roll-top desks and thought everything was fine because it was the same today as it was yesterday,” said John Collins, who pushed for a “New Boston” when he was mayor in the 1960s.
That was when Ratti got started with the marathon. She wasn’t a runner but her husband Charlie was so she got involved by helping out at the finish line. The running boom still was more than a decade away then and the several hundred competitors who lined up in Hopkinton were considered masochists and fools.
“It’s spring and the saps are running,” went the annual newspaper joke.
Ratti, though, had great admiration and affection for the saps, whom she considered the truest of amateurs. The man who won — and only men were permitted to run — was given only a laurel wreath, a medal, and a bowl of canned beef stew. The entrants ran for love because there was no money and Ratti appreciated that.
During Ratti’s early years as a volunteer, female marathoners still were considered intruders. Roberta Gibb, the first woman to run in the race — unofficially — in 1966 wore a hooded sweat shirt to disguise her blonde hair and hid in the bushes a quarter-mile down the road because she feared that officials would kick her off the course if they discovered that she wasn’t a male.
It took six more years before women gained formal admittance to the race, and, when they did, Ratti was at the finish line taking down their numbers and names. She was their steadfast advocate, making sure that they received the equal treatment that they deserved as serious runners. Ratti devised a tracking system to identify the top women at a time when it was difficult to locate them amid the male maelstrom. And when the BAA finally offered prize money in 1986, Ratti made sure that the payouts were the same.
If you went the distance, she believed, you deserved respect and recognition. That’s why Ratti persuaded officials to record the name and number of every finisher, thousands and thousands of them.
When she was elected to the BAA’s Board of Governors in 1987 (she later became its vice president and secretary) Ratti was the only woman in the room but her voice had considerable impact. She was the association’s matriarch and its den mother but, as former executive director Guy Morse said, Ratti primarily was “the First Lady of our Sport,” a perennial ambassador both for the marathon and for Boston.
When she retired in 1993 after a lengthy career with the CIA, where she handled what she called special projects, Ratti joined the BAA as a full-time employee. Nobody cared more about the world’s most fabled footrace than she did or knew more about it. Ratti, who helped design the permanent champion’s trophy, was the marathon’s official historian and archivist and she was relentlessly acquisitive — medals, cups, shoes, bib numbers, photographs.
She got Gibb to give her the bathing suit, shorts, and nurse’s shoes that she wore on her breakthrough jaunt. She found Johnny (The Elder) Kelley’s sweat shirt from the 1936 Olympics spattered with paint and stashed in a corner of his cellar.
If you visited the BAA office you got “Gloria’s Tour” of more than a century’s worth of memorabilia. But you were also treated to a diverting and delightful narrative, rich with insider’s lore. Ratti was a most valuable curator, one whose involvement with the marathon covered a half-century and who was a central character in its most interesting chapters.
She’ll always be the one with no last name.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.