Tommy Leonard - A legend lost
The Litchfield Hills Road Race community and running in general lost a great friend last week with the death of Tommy Leonard at the age of 85. In a world where the `good guys’ seem to be a vanishing breed, Leonard was a great guy. As the late great writer of Westerns, Louis L'Amour would say, Tommy was a man to ride the river with.
Whether it was sharing a run with him back in the day, sharing running stories with him or sharing some hydration with him on any day along with a marathon worth of laughs, being in Tommy’s presence was a soothing, uplifting experience.
I was never part of Tommy’s inner crowd. I am not a runner and have never been to his pride and joy, the Falmouth Road Race, the impetus for the Litchfield Hills Road Race. I have never been to the Boston Marathon or the Eliot Lounge where Tommy earned fame on the stick. Nor have I ever stepped in to the famed Quarterdeck in Falmouth, where Tommy did a lot of his business.
There are other writers who lived the life with Tommy and can more eloquently get to the essence of this special man. But in our casual acquaintance I did share a few beers with Tommy along with quality conversation when he came to the LHRR. Always accompanied by a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face.
I was a brief wisp in Tommy’s life journey. But, I was privileged to have spent a couple of hours with him at the Village Inn in Litchfield in 2005 for a story I wrote upon the release of a book about Tommy by Kathleen Cleary called, “If This is Heaven, I Am Going to Be a Good Boy.”
It was a special moment with a life that touched and made so many other lives better. So thanks Tommy for the time and for adding a long-lasting good in a so-often difficult world.
Here is the story I wrote that day. RIP Tommy.
LITCHFIELD – Tommy Leonard was in heaven Sunday afternoon - his heaven – a warm room with plenty of friends, conversation and smiles. And maybe a wee bit of the lager.
The 71-year-old Leonard has never asked for much in a sporting life. He never had to. What do you ask for when you have it all? And on this afternoon, the Village Restaurant was Leonard’s idea of perfection.
The Village was a little toastier than normal on this crisp fall day, fueled by appreciation for a man who has been an important piece in the puzzle that became the Litchfield Hills Road Race, but even more importantly for a man who chose to live his life with a hearty dose of laughter and a faculty for friendship.
The elbow-banging crowd that stuffed its way into the Village was there for a book-signing about a unique life that is Tommy Leonard. Author Kathleen Cleary has brought Leonard to those who haven’t had the pleasure in her book, “If This Is Heaven, I Am Going to Be a Good Boy.”
Cleary and her husband Mike haven known Leonard since the 1970s when they were running the Boston Marathon and Leonard was pouring his way to fame at the Eliot Lounge in Boston.
When the Eliot closed its doors in 1996, the Cleary’s hired Leonard to be their bartender at the Cork’n Hearth in the Berskshires. Leonard lived with the family from Thanksgiving to Christmas that year, providing the couple with a unique look at a unique man.
“Tommy is an inspiration,” said Kathleen Cleary. “His family gave him up, there were years where he suffered abuse and beatings. Yet, he has been an inspiration with so much humor.”
Leonard is the driving force behind the Falmouth Road Race which draws more than 10,00 runners every summer. He was instrumental in helping Litchfield native and Boston Globe writer, the late Joe Concannon, get the LHRR started.
“I thought we had blown it with our first presentation and Tommy came down and he came in to talk to the selectman and got all excited and told them we would shoot off the cannon on the green which had cement in it and they were kind of looking at him,” remembered Neller. “But then he said, ‘you’ll have all these people on the green spending money in your stores,’ and bingo that was it. That was all it took.”
Leonard’s road to the running world and pourer of choice took a little longer. At the age of six in March of 1940, his family unable to afford him and his sister, his father left him at a mission for children of the poor in Springfield, Mass..
The traumatic experience led him to a succession of foster homes where he was mistreated until finally being taken in by Francis X. and Eleanor Tierney who he dedicates the book to.
“The Tierney’s brought the goodness out of me,” said Leonard. “They put up with a lot from me. I was a bit of a hellion.”
Leonard, who was in the Marines from 1953-55, also ran into another figure, Marine Major John Archbold, who played a major role in is life.
“He befriended me, encouraged me to be a better man,” said Leonard. “He died in 1969 in a helicopter crash on his third tour of duty in Viet Nam. It shattered me. Officers didn’t often fraternize with enlisted men, but he would sit with us and share stories.”
Leonard’s running started when he was young – “Heck, I started running away from orphanages when I was seven,” he laughed. At Westfield High I tried the 100 yard dash and got my rear kicked. Then I did the mile and finished second. I ran my first marathon in 1953.”
The sense of humor is as legendary as the running and all of his races. He once left a dog in a walk-in cooler. When he was 50 he made a horse the guest of honor in his bar.
He would pack college bands in the bar – Stanford, Harvard, Syracuse all, well all that would fit, played in the Eliot Lounge. And the Eliot was the place to go with Tommy Leonard at the stick.
After the 1975 World Series, Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee said, “ (Cincinnati pitcher) Don Gullet is going to the Hall of Fame. I’m going to the Eliot.”
These days Leonard tends bar at the Quarter Deck in Falmouth several days a week on what he calls scholarship. “I’m on the Dave and Bobby Jarvis (owners) Scholarship,” said Leonard. “I eat for free and I drink for free. I’m the luckiest bartender in the world.”
Tommy Leonard sipped and signed almost in a state of disbelief Sunday. Nattily attired in a green pullover, khakis and a pink Busch Stadium hat, you could tell this was where he wanted to be and belonged.
He had some special words for Litchfield – “There is no greater town. They don’t just open up their doors, they open up their hearts. It’s always like a holiday here.”
And for what has been happening in his life.
“This has been a magic carpet ride, a joy, the whole experience,” said Leonard. “The book, seeing old friends, making new friends. I’ve never had many things, but he who has friends is rich.”
A look around the Village Sunday suggested that Tommy Leonard is the richest man in town. And he knew it.
For his dad, who dropped him off at the orphanage that cold day 65 years ago, Leonard had this – “I hope I made you proud.”
Of that there is no doubt.