FALMOUTH — It began with a bold and brazen act of larceny, the day a beloved duckling disappeared from his perch in the Public Garden, the act of a thief with a walnut-sized heart.
Some soulless vandal had sawed off and made off with “Mack’’ — one of the feathered creatures that sprang to life in Robert McCloskey’s timeless children’s classic, “Make Way for Ducklings.’’
It was something Tommy Leonard and Eddie Doyle — longtime friends and celebrated Boston barmen — could not understand. Would not countenance.
“Every day there were baby carriages over there, all the moms bringing their kids,’’ Doyle explained.
“The kids loved it. They’d sit on the ducks like it was a ride. The necks of the bronze statues were all shiny from the kids holding on. When I saw that it was sawed off, I thought: What inspires people to do this? That’s stupid. So we put a little thing together.’’
The “little thing’’ became an emblem for a blend of grass-roots philanthropy, the legacy of two pals, retirees now who can complete each other’s sentences. They have never lost their zeal for good deeds – forged after that 1988 duckling theft — that will again be on display this weekend as thousands of runners and walkers assemble here.
“You look for good people and when you find them, you keep them,’’ said marathon legend Frank Shorter, an Olympic gold medalist. “You look for people who are not on their way anywhere else. And that’s Tommy and Eddie. You always knew they were just absolutely happy where they were.’’
Where were they?
Since 1974, Eddie had been behind the bar at the Bull & Finch, a British pub beneath the Hampshire House across from the Public Garden, where one day primetime television came calling. The bar was rebranded as “Cheers,’’ the place where everyone knows your name, the place where Norm and Cliff sip beers poured for them by Sam “Mayday” Malone.
The fabled TV series debuted in 1982, transforming what had been a venerable tavern into one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
“From that point on that year, we were averaging — instead of a lunch crowd of 100 to 200 people — we had a crowd of 3,000 people during my day shift,’’ Doyle said. “I would lose 7 pounds a shift.’’
Tommy, meantime, was holding court at the Eliot Lounge, at the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues. He was a native of Westfield, orphaned at age 15, who fell in love with running at Westfield High School, and joined the Marine Corps in 1952. He ran his first Boston Marathon a year later, returning to the starting line in Hopkinton more than 20 times over the years.
And, on Father’s Day weekend in June 1972 — the same weekend that the Hotel Vendome burned and collapsed, killing nine firefighters — he went to work at the Eliot Lounge just blocks from the Boston Marathon finish line.
In 1975, after Bill Rodgers won the marathon in record time, a reporter asked him about his immediate plans.
“I said, ‘I’m going to the Eliot Lounge,’ ’’ Rodgers recalled this week. “We went over there and Tommy made this drink called the Blue Whale. I think he made it up on the spot. Tommy was a classic character. He was kind of a leprechaun in a sense. Then he introduced me to Eddie Doyle. Those guys were like brothers. Peas in a pod.’’
At Cheers, Doyle served celebrities like boxing great Muhammad Ali, and he organized something called the Barleyhoppers Running Club. Its motto? “We run for fun. We roam for foam.’’
At the Eliot, Leonard served a parade of newspaper reporters and sports figures like champion golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, who stopped in for a drink one night after picking up an award at a nearby hotel.
“He’s like Eddie Doyle,’’ Leonard said of Zoeller. “He can tell stories until the cows come home. He ended up tending bar and we were there until 3 o’clock in the morning.’’
It was an era of friendly beer-drinking and well-hydrated shenanigans — like the time someone thought it would be a good idea to bring a horse into the Eliot to help toast Leonard’s 50th birthday.
“It was kind of tight quarters and the horse got wedged into a small space,’’ recalled Doug Brown, who tended bar with Leonard and managed the Eliot before it closed in 1996. “You never knew what was going to happen in that place.’’
But you knew what happened when Leonard and Doyle got together. A poster would go up on the wall. A hat would be passed. A collection would be taken. Thousands would be raised.
They sold 3,500 buttons, raising $5,000 to help pay to replace Mack, the stolen bronzed duckling which was the work of West Newton sculptor Nancy Schon.
Separately or together, the two men raised money to benefit accident victims, those battling cancer, people who lost homes to flooding, or lost lives to senseless shootings. They sent checks to the Globe Santa to benefit needy kids at Christmas.
“If I had an idea – and most of them were zany – I’d go to Eddie and he’d finesse it,’’ Leonard said.
One of those ideas was a local running event called “The Bull to the Eliot,’’ which attracted sports figures including Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, the team’s then-manager Joe Morgan, and Gene Conley, who once played both for the Sox and the Celtics.
After the Eliot’s demise, Leonard moved to Falmouth, where Doyle and his wife already owned a retirement home.
Leonard had famously founded the Falmouth Road Race in 1973. In 1991, the two men had a brainstorm: What about a Falmouth Walk? Local charities could use the money and there were thousands of runners in town.
The 3.2-mile event, which starts here at 10 a.m. on Saturday, raises $30,000 a year.
These guys clearly enjoy each other’s company, engaging in a kind of easy repartee that doubles as a comedy routine.
“Eddie’s got a dry sense of humor when he gets wound up,’’ Leonard said. “He’s got great answers. I’m not that quick with a quip. First of all, I’m deaf in one ear.’’
“I think it’s both ears now, Tom,’’ Doyle, 77, told him.
Tommy Leonard turned 84 years old this week.
As I sat with him at the Quarterdeck restaurant here, he sipped a small glass of a cold Sam Adams draft, a beer he’s almost as devoted to as the road race this weekend that he founded 44 years ago.
“I can’t sleep at night because I’m just so excited,’’ Leonard told me. “You’d think I’d outgrow it, but I’m still a little boy. Giving makes life worth living. That’s always been embedded in me.’’
Across the wooden table – just before the luncheon crowd arrived – a quiet Eddie Doyle smiled.
It was the fond smile of a treasured friend, a fellow cancer survivor, a longtime collaborator in good deeds large and small.
Eddie Doyle’s smile said so much, something so simple and pure. It was a wordless message forged over the years that said this: Cheers.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.