Rick Hoyt was 16 when he first had the idea that he should participate in a fund-raising road race, and as with nearly everything in his life, plenty of people were ready to tell him no.
Born with cerebral palsy and growing up before the rights of those with disabilities were part of the public conversation, Mr. Hoyt rose above naysayers such as teachers who said he didn’t belong in schools and a doctor who told his parents he would be a “vegetable.”
Though that first road race presented a distinct challenge for someone who used a wheelchair, he and his father, Dick Hoyt, soon became known throughout the state, across the nation, and internationally. Father pushing son for thousands of miles in all manner of conditions, the Hoyts opened doors for countless others as competition after competition became inclusive through their efforts.
“I use running to help motivate people and inspire them,” Rick Hoyt told the Globe in 1990, speaking to the world through a special computer.
An inspiration to generations of athletes through his participation with his father in 32 Boston Marathons and more than 1,000 distance races, Mr. Hoyt died Monday in The Meadows, a care facility in the Leicester village of Rochdale.
He was 61 and had experienced complications with his respiratory system, though his health had seemed better in recent times, according to his brother Russ.
“What the Marathon allows us to do, what Rick and Dick did, is to find some meaningful, powerful experience to express ourselves,” said four-time Boston winner Bill Rodgers.
“They were a huge part of the Boston Marathon,” Rodgers said of the Hoyts. “They wanted to be part of it, and they were, and that’s what counted. And because of them, other people can say, ‘I’m going to try to do it.’ That’s what’s great about them.”
The father-and-son duo, whose names joined the pantheon of instantly recognizable Boston Marathon competitors, last ran the race together in 2014. Dick Hoyt died of heart failure in March 2021.
“He was my motor, I was his heart,” Rick Hoyt told WBZ News the following month, just before that year’s Boston Marathon, as he invoked images the two often used to describe the duet they performed step by step, mile by mile, year by year.
“I’ve always said that I’m just lending Rick my arms and my legs,” Dick told the Globe in 2000. “He’s the one with the heart.”
But on that 1977 day when the Hoyts rolled up to the starting line for a race to benefit a lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident, “nobody wanted anything to do with us,” Dick recalled in a 1990 interview. “Everyone stood back. They wouldn’t come near us.”
Though they finished next to last in that first race, their mere participation was the first in a series of “firsts” as they became duo-competitor pioneers, one pushing the other, in races everywhere.
By the time age and declining health prompted each to retire from racing the Hoyts had expanded their resume to include triathlons, six Ironman competitions among them. In addition, the Hoyts biked and ran across the country in 45 days in 1992.
Using their growing renown to help others, the Hoyts and the rest of their family created the Team Hoyt foundation, which awards grants to families pursuing inclusion efforts.
Father and son also gave motivational speeches, and Rick Hoyt kept doing so after his father died.
“Just last week he spoke at Marathon Elementary School in Hopkinton,” his brother Russ, who lives in Holland, said Monday.
“When Rick started speaking on his computer, all of a sudden the kids snapped up and you could hear a pin drop,” Russ said. “His message is so strong and the kids really, really cued in to hear what he said. And his message was the catch phrase, ‘yes, you can.’ He explained to kids that when you think something is hard to do, you step back and say, ‘yes you can.’ You can do anything you set your mind to do.”
The oldest of three brothers, Rick Hoyt was born in Winchester Hospital on Jan. 10, 1962. His parents were Richard Hoyt Sr. and Judith Ann Leighton Hoyt, who had been named class couple in high school.
Dick served in the Army and Air National Guard for many years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
Judy, who died in 2010, took the lead with Rick’s education, refusing to be dissuaded by educators or doctors.
In 1991, she recalled in a Globe interview that early on a doctor said her efforts would bring her “nothing but pain. Put him away in an institution. You’re young. Have more children.’ "
Instead, she became a leading proponent of opening schools to those who, like Rick, had special needs. She went on to found a human services agency and a pioneering camp that welcomed children with and without disabilities.
When Mr. Hoyt was a boy, engineers at Tufts University developed a computer that let him spell words by using his head.
The night after their first race in 1977, he wrote a note to his father: “Dad, when I’m running, my disability seems to disappear.”
The family lived in North Reading and then moved to Westfield, where Mr. Hoyt graduated from high school. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in special education in 1993 from Boston University.
By then, the Hoyts competing in the Boston Marathon had become a tradition.
“Now it wouldn’t be the same without them,” Mr. Hoyt’s brother Rob of Holyoke told the Globe a few years later. “I think they have opened the door for a lot of physically challenged athletes to be able to be in competition with mainstream athletes.”
Mr. Hoyt was the oldest of the three brothers, “and he took that role seriously,” said Russ, who sought his brother’s counsel at key moments, such as when he wondered if he should propose to his now-wife, Lisa.
“Everything you would expect of a brother relationship definitely existed for the three of us,” Russ said.
Rob and Russ are Mr. Hoyt’s only immediate survivors, and of his nephews and niece — Troy, Ryan, James, Cam, and Cassie — three (Troy, Ryan, and Cam) already have taken on the family tradition of running marathons.
A memorial gathering for Mr. Hoyt will be announced.
Active until the end, Mr. Hoyt had been working with Dave McGillivray, president of DMSE Sports Inc., to establish a “yes, you can” road race in Hopkinton to honor the memory of Dick Hoyt. Its first running is scheduled for Saturday, and the two last spoke about the race via Zoom four days ago.
In many ways, McGillivray said, the Hoyts’ renown “was always about Rick. People talk about Dick pushing Rick, but guess what: It was Rick pushing Dick saying, ‘I want to do this.’ ”
And for Mr. Hoyt, life was more than marathons. Finish lines loomed as sharply in schools and places of work as they did on Boylston Street each year.
“Today,” he told the Globe years ago, “I think more people understand that people with disabilities are equal and have the capability of learning, just like the rest.”
Read more about the Hoyts
- Dick and Rick Hoyt: The power of the love between a father and a son
- Remembering Boston Marathon icon Dick Hoyt: a powerful symbol of perseverance and possibility
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.