Women runners in the 1971 Boston Marathon gathered in a Hopkinton church just before the start of the race for a brief respite from what they knew they faced: harassment from hundreds of male competitors who overwhelmingly outnumbered them and, in many cases, didn’t think they belonged on the course.
Then in walked Gloria Ratti, who would become one of the most important women in the race’s history, even though she never ran a step along the course. She was a volunteer and advocate who over the years changed the way the Marathon operated, always with an eye on equality for women.
“Gloria wore a dress, chic khaki, and had curly hair and had an effervescent smile,” recalled Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 was the first woman to run the race as an officially registered competitor, in an interview with Runner’s World magazine. “She bustled about the church, relayed the weather reports from her transistor radio, and produced a supply of soap, towels, and tampons, whatever we might need, that no one else in Boston would have thought of. She was helpful but never intrusive, a sort of mother hen.”
Ms. Ratti, a pioneering woman on the Boston Marathon’s board of governors and the race’s historian, died of cancer July 24, the Boston Athletic Association announced. She was 90 and lived in Quincy.
A former board of governors vice president, she became a road race fan by chance. She started volunteering at finish lines at the end of the 1960s when her husband, Charlie, took up running on the advice of his doctor, who wanted him to lower his cholesterol.
“After he started running, he was gone for an hour or an hour-and-a-half at a time during the race and I didn’t have anything to do,” she told the Globe in 1994 for his obituary. “So I decided I should participate too.”
She conceived of some innovations in those early days and later pushed to apply them to the Boston Marathon.
At her husband’s races, “the timers did not time the entire field, so I purchased a stopwatch to record Charlie’s finishes,” she told Runner’s World for a profile of her earlier this year. “I asked the AAU official who was wearing a fedora and overcoat why he didn’t time the entire field and he replied, ‘Sweetie, if you start to do that, they will expect it all the time.’ "
In a statement announcing that Ms. Ratti had died, the BAA said she had pushed the Marathon’s “finish line officials to stay at their posts and record the names and times of all finishers coming through the chute, not just the traditional top 100 as had been the norm. A forward thinker, Gloria knew finishing a marathon — especially the Boston Marathon — was a noteworthy accomplishment and wanted to honor all athletes for their effort. Ever since, the Marathon has kept track of all who’ve crossed the famed Boylston Street finish line.”
She also insisted that race organizers make sure that women’s checkpoints were as accurate as those for men, the BAA said, and that women and men be awarded equal prize money when that practice began in 1986.
“She worked and lobbied to get us an equal place,” Sara Mae Berman, the Boston Marathon’s top female finisher in the 1968 to 1971 races, told Runner’s World.
As Ms. Ratti became more involved with the Marathon, she put the needs of runners before her own ground-breaking place in the race’s history.
“Every year was nerve-racking,” she told Runner’s World in January, shrugging off a request to pick a favorite memory. “I was busy timing the women and praying our finish-line didn’t screw up.”
One of 10 siblings, Gloria Graceffa was born March 13, 1931, and grew up in South Boston, a daughter of John Graceffa and Anna Baio Graceffa.
In interviews with the Globe and Runner’s World, she spoke little of her life outside of races and competitions, perhaps befitting her day job.
Ms. Ratti worked for the CIA for about four decades, retiring as chief clerk and telling the Globe that her duties included “special projects.”
According to the Runner’s World profile, she had joked that she applied to work for the intelligence agency because she thought that CIA stood for “cleaning, ironing, and alterations.”
“She becomes romantic at any mention of Brazil,” Runner’s World reported. “She loves to tell stories about spying on pompous generals who thought she was there to make the coffee.”
Elected to the BAA’s board of governors in 1987, she had served as vice president and secretary, and she joined the organization full time in 1993 after retiring from the CIA.
Ms. Ratti, who knew seemingly ordinary objects are important, helped lead the effort in the mid-1990s when the Boston Marathon was approaching its 100th anniversary and the BAA wanted to establish a display about the history of the race.
Asked to gather memorabilia, Ms. Ratti was so diligent that the project became a “bona fide museum,” she told the Globe in 2010.
For example, while visiting Marathon legend John J. Kelley to see if he had anything to donate, she spotted an aging, dusty, paint-speckled sweatshirt in a basement corner of his Cape Cod cottage.
Kelley had worn the sweatshirt, emblazoned with USA on the front, while competing in the Olympics, and in later years he pulled it on while painting in the chilly basement.
The memorabilia collection she helped gather was a big draw in 1996, during the Marathon’s 100th running.
Finding items such as Kelley’s sweatshirt “makes me strive harder to gather the history of the event,” she told the Globe in 2010. “Anyone who knows about the Boston Marathon and views the items never fails to walk away with a newfound respect.”
Ms. Ratti’s husband, Charles, a retired printer for the US Postal Service, died in 1994. According to his Globe obituary, he had competed in more than 100 long-distance races, 13 Boston Marathons among them.
Her family placed a death notice that said her nine siblings also have died.
In the Runner’s World interview, Ms. Ratti said she took an active role in the lives of her 27 nieces and nephews and their children.
“They’re all going on to college. Education is what matters,” she said. “I help all I can.”
Her family said in the death notice that relatives and friends are invited to attend a celebration of Ms. Ratti’s life at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Robert J. Lawler and Crosby Funeral Home in West Roxbury. Burial will follow in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.
The live-streamed service will be available online for those who go to her obituary notice on the funeral home’s website.
“The core value that drove her was that things should be done as well as possible,” said Tom Grilk, the BAA’s chief executive, in the organization’s statement.
Joann Flaminio, the BAA’s first woman president and a close friend of Ms. Ratti, said in the statement that “Gloria may not have been an athlete, but she had terrific stamina especially during race week. She was the first to arrive and last to leave at each and every event.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.