Tommy Leonard, founder of the New Balance Falmouth Road Race, passed away on Wednesday, January 16. He was 85.
With a heart of gold and the soul of a runner, Tommy served as the spiritual leader of the race from the moment he dreamed it into existence almost 50 years ago until his passing late Wednesday night at the JML Care Center in Falmouth.
“He obviously gave us this incredible gift that’s bigger than any of us could ever have imagined,” said Geoff Nickerson, president of the board of directors of Falmouth Road Race, Inc.
It all began when Tommy was tending bar at the Brothers 4 in Falmouth Heights when he flipped on the TV to watch Frank Shorter compete for the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics. No American had won the Olympic marathon since 1972, but Shorter was in the lead.
As Bill Higgins, now retired after a long career at the Cape Cod Times, wrote in the race magazine for the 45th running:
Tommy couldn’t contain his excitement. He turned off the jukebox, shut down the taps and cranked up the TV, explaining to one and all the magnitude of the moment.
Shorter’s historic run to the gold medal left Tommy flush with inspiration. A man famous for chasing rainbows, he wondered: “Why not a race in Falmouth, in the summer, with Frank Shorter running?”
On August 15, 1973, the first Falmouth Road Race was held – on Tommy’s 39th birthday – to raise funds for the girls’ track team at Falmouth High School. The next year, Bill Rodgers won. In 1975, Shorter himself would come, and he would win. In 1976, a young woman named Joan Benoit took the women’s crown.
From there, Tommy’s dream took flight, soaring to become one of the “must-do” road races in the country, if not the world – 12,800 runners led by some of the best athletes in history. Not incidentally, Rodgers, Shorter and Benoit still return to run almost every year. But from the legends to the last finishers, Tommy loved them all.
“No matter how many people were there,” said Nickerson, “he always made you feel like you were the only person.”
And the “giving back” didn’t end with that girls’ track team. In the past seven years alone, Falmouth Road Race Inc. has contributed more than $2.1 million to the health and wellness of Tommy’s beloved Falmouth and surrounding communities. To honor his inspiration, the race last year launched a year of giving in his name: The Tommy Leonard Spotlight Award, with $2,500 given each month to a featured nonprofit.
“His enthusiasm and his need to give back is basically what’s driven us,” said Scott Ghelfi, a member of the board of directors and former president. “I’ve always tried to think of that and have it motivate me.”
That enthusiasm never waned. Over the Christmas holidays, after Leonard was paid a visit by 2018 race winner Ben Flanagan, “he talked about it for days,” said Ghelfi.
In 2017, the Boston Globe’s Tom Farragher caught up with Tommy during Race Week for a story on his generous heart and long-time philanthropy, often executed with pal Eddie Doyle. Sitting at the Quarterdeck, sipping a Sam Adams, Tommy talked about the upcoming race, but also summed up his own life:
“I can’t sleep at night because I’m just so excited. 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.’’
And you, Tommy, will always be embedded in our hearts. And soles.