Wherever you go this time of year, it’s the same. The white stuff is mercifully gone, the grass is turning green, the flowers are starting to grow, and serious runners in tight shorts are getting back to workouts on neighbourhood sidewalks.
It’s called spring.
In Pictou County, it means even more. It’s also time for organizers and volunteers to finalize arrangements for another Johnny Miles Marathon, though it’s hard to admit that 42 years have blown off the calendar since the inaugural event.
When the marathon was first prescribed – by a doctor, no less – the town of New Glasgow was making plans for its centennial celebrations in 1975. The public was being asked to submit ideas for the big party.
Dr. John Williston, then chairman of the town’s recreation commission, got out his pocket notebook and proposed a marathon. He even mentioned the significance of calling it after Johnny Miles, the Cape Bretoner who twice won the Boston Marathon in the 1920s.
Anyone who knew the doctor understood the reasoning behind the suggested name. Williston had been born in Sydney in 1927, the year after Miles’ first win in Beantown, and was baptized John Miles Williston.
The thinking was to make the event a one-time occurrence.
In 1956, the 29-year-old Williston met the revered marathoner for the first time. A warm friendship began.
That same year, Williston and his wife Phyllis came to New Glasgow so John could join the medical staff at the Aberdeen Hospital. He would practise medicine in the county for over 50 years.
Both Willistons were sports enthusiasts.
John had been a runner in his early years, he played rugby and, when hockey became his primary sport, he helped Sydney Academy win a Maritime high school championship. He never ran seriously despite the name he carried. When he went to Dalhousie University, he was a three-sport athlete, playing varsity hockey and rugby and boxing.
Phyllis had been a competitive softball player in Inverness, played on ladies championship clubs, and was on Nova Scotia’s team in the first Canada Summer Games in Halifax-Dartmouth.
Sports didn’t go by the wayside when the couple got to New Glasgow. John joined with another doctor, John Hamm, in running the New Glasgow Rangers in the Maritime Senior Hockey League in the 1960s, and they were responsible for bringing former NHL star Fleming Mackell in to play and coach the Rangers. The result was a Maritime title in 1964-65.
John loved talking about Johnny Miles, at least he did when we were together. He would always bring up the story about when he did run some races. It’s one of those tales I like to repeat.
“When I was about 12,” he would begin, “I did a bit of running in the school yard when I went to school and they had little meets. The kids thought they were good and would say, ‘I’m Johnny Miles’ when they ran. I had no occasion to use the name Miles very much. I was just Johnny Williston. So I always said to the kids, ‘Oh yeah,’ and left it at that.
“When I got to about junior high, people started to call me Johnny Miles Williston. They were starting to have races at the track, but I never ran anything serious there. I never competed. Some of my buddies said I should be running because of my name. But I was more interested in other sports.”
It was in 1974, the year before the New Glasgow centennial, that Williston took his marathon proposal to some sports leaders in town, people like John (Brother) MacDonald, George Manos, Charlie Stevens, Jimmy Hawboldt, Roy Oliver and George MacKay. No surprise – all of them loved the suggestion.
Soon the good doctor was putting in 18 to 20 hours a day, with his medical responsibilities, while raising money for the marathon.
From the Rangers days to the marathons to the other sports events he got into, he and I sat down several times to chat. I often asked him why he had so much on his plate.
“Well,” he’d answer, “if I wasn’t doing this I’d be doing something else. Where there’s people, where there’s action, where there’s something benefiting the area and beyond, that’s where I am.”
That’s how he became a valuable volunteer.
Williston was the first to admit that, after the inaugural marathon in 1975, it was no time to rest on the laurels and just sit back and talk about it.
With his blessing, and that of the others, there was a second marathon the next year. Then there was a third, and a fourth – until now they’re such a huge part of the county’s fabric, no one would suggest it’s time to quit. The marathon is entrenched in the community.
A dozen or so years ago, Johnny and I were addressing the event once again. This time he was in a great mood, saying the marathon had been great for the county, and he didn’t know of anything that had the quality of production from the first time it was held, and continued to hold such high quality year after year.
The two central figures in the story are gone now.
However, the special friendship they held for each other didn’t suddenly stop. In 2002, when Johnny Miles died at the grand old age of 97, in his will he left his blue and tan Boston Marathon jacket to his pal.
Three years later, when I stopped by the Williston home to see the doctor again, he opened the front door, proudly holding up that prized jacket for me to see. He was smiling a huge smile.
Following the doctor’s death a few years later, the walking track at the Pictou County Wellness Centre was officially renamed the Dr. John Williston Walk.
I bet he was smiling again.