Tommy Leonard founded the Falmouth Road Race in 1973 on his 40th birthday, and his August classic became a present to generations of runners — from Olympic gold medalists to beginners lucky enough to snag a spot on the starting line.
“It’s a dream that became reality,” he once told the Globe, and over the past 45 years, his race achieved a mythical status among many runners second only to the Boston Marathon.
Mr. Leonard, who was 85 when he died in Falmouth on Jan. 16, was a magnet for many of the greatest names of the running boom of the mid- to late-1970s.
Olympic marathon gold medalists Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit Samuelson ran and won the Falmouth Road Race. Four-time Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers finished first in the second Falmouth contest and walked away with what was then the top prize — a Waring blender.
Everyone from the elite to the huffers-and-puffers were drawn by the beauty of the course, part of which runs along Vineyard Sound, and perhaps even more by the race’s most attractive feature: Mr. Leonard himself. A fabled bartender, Marine veteran, and marathon runner, he created a summer bookend to the Boston Marathon.
“He was quite the dude,” Rodgers said. “He was definitely a different breed of cat. Yes, he was a bartender, but obviously so much more, the way he used his mind to change lives.”
A pioneer of using races to raise money for causes, Mr. Leonard donated the proceeds from the first Falmouth race to pay the expenses for high school girls in town to travel to races..
“Tommy was doing that back in 1973, so he was ahead of his time,” Rodgers said. “From the very beginning, Tommy had a big heart.”
Dave McGillivray, race director for the Boston Marathon and what is now officially the New Balance Falmouth Road Race, said that what he “will remember most about Tommy is his kind soul and compassion.”
He called his friend “a genius” for launching a 7.1-mile race “from one bar to another bar, along the beautiful ocean landscape in the summer on Cape Cod.”
Mr. Leonard’s “gem,” McGillivray added, “became America’s road race.”
During most of Mr. Leonard’s running years and long afterward, he also was a beloved bartender who championed numerous fund-raisers.
The Falmouth Chamber of Commerce named him Citizen of the Year in 2009 for his civic contributions, but to those perched on barstools, he was the man of the evening for decades. Notably, he had tapped beers at the Brothers 4 in Falmouth Heights, and worked for nearly a quarter century at the Eliot Lounge in the Back Bay.
Through the force of Mr. Leonard’s personality, the Eliot became what Outside magazine called “The World’s Most Famous Runners’ Bar.”
“I was interested in making this place a rendezvous, something for apres race,” he told the Globe in 1986 of the Eliot’s reputation as the place to go after the Boston Marathon.
“I didn’t care if they came in dead last or they took five hours,” he told Outside in 2017. “I wanted everybody to be treated like Joan Benoit and Bill Rodgers.”
Still, for tens of thousands of runners who count the Falmouth Road Race among their most treasured runs, the course along the water remains Mr. Leonard’s lasting achievement.
“I call it an American classic,” Rodgers said. “Maybe it’s the number one road race in America.”
Thomas Francis Leonard was born in Springfield on Aug. 15, 1933. His parents were Edward Leonard, a railroad conductor, and Elizabeth McCarthy, a homemaker. Mr. Leonard and his sister, Grace of Parkville, Md., were young when their parents died of health ailments.
Mr. Leonard recalled in 1986 that when he was a boy his father “brought me to the orphanage the week before President Roosevelt declared war. It was snowing like heck outside. I had all my earthly possessions in a shopping bag, and I wouldn’t let go of my father’s hand.”
The orphanage fed him in the kitchen, but “there were tears in my pancakes,” he said. “Of course, when I came out, my father was gone. They asked me to go to the playroom, and I went in and jumped out the window, clutching my shopping bag, and landed neck-deep in snow. I made a run for Route 20, wanting to go back home to Springfield.”
Mr. Leonard eventually went to live in Westfield with Frank and Eleanor Tierney. He considered their children — Susan Tierney Oslin of West Dennis and Michael Tierney of Westfield — his adopted siblings. Grace, Susan, and Michael are Mr. Leonard’s immediate survivors.
The Tierneys “were wonderful to me, and that settled my life down,” Mr. Leonard recalled. “I always liked to run — I ran before the boom. I went to Westfield High and ran the mile. I did all right, but I was kind of a rapscallion. I’d skip practice and all.”
He enlisted in the Marines and, after Parris Island, was assigned to be a guard at the Portsmouth Naval Prison. That afforded off-hours time for long training runs.
“When I ran my first Boston Marathon in ’53, the Portsmouth Herald played it up: ‘Local Marine Runs Marathon,’ ” said Mr. Leonard, who eventually ran the race 24 times.
Post-military life included a quick stint at Holyoke Community College. He also held jobs in New York and California, where he began tending bar in Santa Monica and “liked it. I knew I had found my niche.”
Mr. Leonard then returned to Massachusetts to stay, except for moving briefly to Houston in the late 1980s, when the owners of a bar enticed him with a generous offer.
He lived most of his life in Falmouth and Boston, where his friends included Eddie Doyle — famous for bartending at the Bull & Finch, better known as the “Cheers” bar. The two teamed up to raise thousands of dollars to replace a duckling that had been stolen from the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture in the Public Garden.
“Those guys were like brothers,” Rodgers once observed. “Peas in a pod.”
Mr. Leonard’s name adorned a bridge over Commonwealth Avenue and a Falmouth bench where runners can catch their breath at the end of “the little race that grew and grew. I used to run the course by myself, and I was struck by its beauty,” he once said. “It’s been my big rush.”
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Thursday in St. Patrick Church in Falmouth. Burial will be in Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
Mr. Leonard “had a way of reaching people,” recalled his sister Susan, who said he was as warm a presence with his family as he was with his extended family of runners and customers.
“I’m the most fortunate bartender in the world,” he said in 1987, as he prepared to return to Boston from Houston. “I’ve got friends that money can’t buy.”
Ultimately, even a higher salary couldn’t buy a longer stay away from Massachusetts.
“What I miss is walking along Commonwealth Avenue in the springtime and a quiet run in the Sunday morning stillness of the Freedom Trail,” Mr. Leonard said, and he added: “I left my heart and soul in the Back Bay.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BryanMarquard.