- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

FALMOUTH, Mass. — The Quarterdeck Restaurant on Main Street was particularly busy for a Friday afternoon. But for the most part, it wasn’t the diners who were causing such hustle and bustle but the man they came to see, Tommy Leonard.

If you are not from Cape Cod, or from New England for that matter, you could be pardoned for not knowing who Leonard is or that this was a special weekend. But for the more than 9,500 runners lining up at Woods Hole for the 33rd Falmouth Road Race this morning, they owe this man a debt of gratitude for putting this world-renowned event on the racing map.

“We had 98 people in the first year in 1973,” Leonard recalled as we chatted at the Quarterdeck, where he tends bar and attracts a huge following. “And then it just exploded from there.”

The inaugural race was held early on a Wednesday afternoon and, coincidentally, on Leonard’s 40th birthday, Aug.15, 1973. Leonard already was making a name for himself in the running community as a bartender at the now-defunct Eliot Lounge in Boston while doing summer duty at another bar, Brothers4 in Falmouth.

Leonard, who has spent much of his life marrying his love of running with his love of drinking, conceived the idea of running a race from one of his favorite watering holes to the pub where he tended bar.

The first Falmouth race announcement read, “1st Annual Marathon — Captain Kidd’s [Woods Hole] to Brothers 4 [Falmouth Heights], a 7.3 Mile Race Open to All Serious Runners, to benefit the Falmouth Track Club.” Followed, of course, by his birthday celebration.

The course followed a most beautiful seaside road, complete with a lighthouse, beaches and breathtaking vistas.

“The Falmouth Road Race was partly inspired by Frank Shorter winning the [Olympic] gold medal in 1972,” Leonard said. “I wouldn’t serve anybody a drink until he crossed the line.”

Soon after, Leonard said, he was sitting there at Brothers4 after a busy night, reflecting and looking out on Martha’s Vineyard Sound. In the background, he could hear Roberta Flack singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” He said it was then that he decided he really wanted to do something nice for the Falmouth Track Club.

With Leonard as the visionary and Rich Sherman, then the new town recreation director, and John Carroll, then the coach of the track club and Falmouth High School track team, on board the race was founded. Sherman is the race director to this day.

The next year Leonard was able to persuade the town’s selectmen and police to move the race to a Sunday. Some 476 runners finished it, with up-and-coming Greater Boston Track Club star Bill Rodgers beating premier miler Marty Liquori.

But one person was missing: Frank Shorter.

“It was after the Shorter victory in the Olympics [that] I said Frank Shorter would come to my race someday, and everybody laughed at me,” Leonard recalled. “It was then that I really wanted to make it happen.”

So Leonard chased Shorter around the world and finally got him. Shorter raced against Rodgers in the third year of the event and beat him with close to 900 runners in the field.

Then Leonard made another bold prediction.

“I told Joe Concannon [the late Boston Globe sportswriter] that I’d have 5,000 runners at my race one day or I’d do a swan dive off the Bourne Bridge [that links the Cape to the mainland].” By 1980, the field hit 5,000 runners, attracting the world’s best distance stars.

Like the career bartender he is, Leonard can entertain for hours with story upon story. Even today his eyes light up when he recalls the days of the Eliot Lounge, where he worked from 1972 to 1996 until the bar that rested below the Eliot Hotel lost its lease.

That lounge was made famous by Leonard himself. He invited the finishers of the Boston Marathon each year to throw back a cold one or three after running the most prestigious marathon in the world. He also became the goodwill ambassador to many an international athlete or out-of-towner looking for a place to hang where the talk of the bar was about running.

But Leonard’s life has not been easy.

“I’ve kinda had a wild and wacky life,” Leonard said. It started with a rough childhood that, he said, took a turn for the worse at age 6 when his parents, destitute and in failing health, left him at a Springfield, Mass., orphanage with his sister Grace. He spent six years there.

“I kept running away,” Leonard said with a chuckle. “That was the beginning of my running career.”

His chuckle disappeared when he talked about the pain of having to recall his past for a biography, just off the press, titled “If This Is Heaven, I Am Going to Be a Good Boy — The Tommy Leonard Story.”

The book encapsulates the man who spent years in foster homes, then the Marine Corps, then community college before finding himself at home at the Eliot. The book describes in detail Leonard’s struggles and also his lifelong interest in philanthropy.

Interestingly enough author Kathleen Cleary spent five years meticulously researching Leonard’s life and is generously contributing a percentage of the sale of the book to a retirement trust for Leonard.

It is a fitting tribute to a man who started with so little yet has given so much of himself.

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