‘Tommy was a force of nature who empowered you’: Boston, Falmouth running communities mourn the loss of Tommy Leonard

"You came away feeling better about yourself because you had been with him."

Tommy Leonard, bartender at the Eliot Lounge.
Tommy Leonard, at the Eliot Lounge. –The Boston Globe

There are many titles and words used to describe Tommy Leonard. Leonard was the official greeter for the Boston Marathon and founder of the Falmouth Road Race.

He was also a bartender at the long-ago-shuttered Eliot Lounge. Or, as Tom Grilk, the CEO of the Boston Athletic Association and longtime friend of Leonard, referred to him: “empresario,” the Spanish word for businessman.

Or, perhaps, in deeper terms, he was a force of nature, as Grilk put it.

Leonard died Wednesday at the JML Care Center in Falmouth, according to a tribute to him on the Falmouth race’s website. He was 85.

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The marks Leonard made on the Boston running community, and beyond, are indelible.

“There are very few people who are forces of nature by themselves,” Grilk told Boston.com in an interview. “When they are, they tend to be forceful in a way that can be overpowering. It can be overpowering for good, but somewhat overpowering. Tommy was a force of nature who empowered you. You came away feeling better about yourself because you had been with him.”

Leonard and Grilk were friends for over 40 years.

Not surprisingly, they met at the Eliot Lounge, Grilk said. Some of the big names in the Boston running community could be found there, too, in the mid- to late-1970s — the likes of Randy Thomas, the current women’s cross country and track and field program director at Boston College, and Jack McDonald, founder of the Greater Boston Track Club. 

“You could find some of the greatest runners in the world back then,” Grilk said.

Leonard was a runner himself.

“His picture was on the cover of Sports Illustrated sometime in the 1950s as he was running the Boston Marathon,” Grilk said. “He wasn’t winning, but he was running. There he was.”

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Beyond that, Leonard helped to bring people together. Grilk summed up his friend’s personality as “wide open and gregarious,” and everyone was made to feel welcome.

“He was so pleased you showed up, and the next person and the one after that,” he said.

Leonard founded the Falmouth race in 1973; the first one was actually held on his 39th birthday — Aug. 15, 1973, according to the race’s website.

“He was obviously very well known throughout the state, and he came up with the idea to establish the Falmouth Road Race” Geoff Nickerson, president of the Falmouth race’s board of directors, said. “In the first year, there was a couple dozen participants. The wonderful thing he gave us was to establish the race and carry it forward.”

The race now attracts roughly 12,800 each year.

“His enthusiasm and his need to give back is basically what’s driven us,” Scott Ghelfi, a member of the board of directors and former president, said in a statement. “I’ve always tried to think of that and have it motivate me.”

One of Grilk’s favorite stories involving Leonard comes from the creation of the Freedom Trail Road Race.

He, Leonard, and McDonald of the track club met with officials from Labatt Blue with the hope of securing the Canadian brewing company’s sponsorship of the club. While company officials said they couldn’t sponsor the club itself, they could get on board with a race.

The problem was there wasn’t one, according to Gilk. That didn’t stop Leonard from creating one on the spot.

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“Tommy said, ‘Yeah, we have a race,’” Grilk said, adding that his friend mentioned it was along the waterfront. “It was news to all of us, including him.”

The group then spent multiple Sundays devising a course that went along the waterfront and through Charlestown, Grilk said.

Both the Falmouth race and the Boston Marathon will honor Leonard in some way this year, Grilk and Nickerson said.

“It would be impossible to do anything this year without remembering him,” Grilk said. “He’ll be the grand marshal in the sky for this one.”

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