Some things I never forget.
Even after 44 years, I remember the early morning phone call and the excited voice at the other end of the line. It was Dr. Johnny Williston, the New Glasgow doctor that I had gotten to know during my working years in Pictou County.
It was 1974 and I was sports editor of The Chronicle Herald at that time. I had just arrived at my desk in the newsroom and hadn’t poured my first coffee of the day. That could wait.
Johnny caught my attention with his opening comment: “I’ve got a great idea and I want you to know about it.”
With that, he began to explain how he was going to submit “a major proposal” to New Glasgow’s political leaders.
As you’ll recall, the town was preparing to hold centennial celebrations the following year and the good doctor was interested in adding a sports event to the attractions.
A marathon was on his mind. He would bring two-time Boston Marathon champion Johnny Miles to the county to be part of such an undertaking. That was understandable. Williston’s full name was Johnny Miles Williston, named after the province’s iconic marathoner.
The event, in Johnny’s mind, would be held just once — in 1975.
Williston, with the town’s blessing, quickly got the preparations started and, maybe most important, he smartly lined up an impressive group of volunteers. Among them were George Manos, George MacKay, Jimmy Hawboldt, Roy Oliver, Charlie Stevens and John (Brother) MacDonald.
MacKay took on the chairmanship for 1975 and, with sound advice from Hawboldt and Oliver, outstanding runners of an earlier era, each detail was ably handled with expertise and hard work.
Those in the Williston camp demonstrated the importance of volunteers, showing that Pictou County had willing people to create a winner.
About a year after that early-morning call from Williston, I was back in my hometown, proud of what the community was presenting.
That day the “one-time” marathon was truly a success.
A modest 27 runners went to the starting line. Later, the great Johnny Miles himself was there to present the trophy to the champion. Everyone was pleased with what had transpired.
MacKay had done a good job as chairman and Manos handled the starter’s post like a real veteran.
Months later, Johnny Williston and I were together at his home and reminisced about the centennial event – the “one-time” event. Recently, I looked up three old columns I had written about that conversation.
“I thought that was it,” he told me. “I said, ‘Gee, it’s over.’ That was it.”
He had shown how the marathon had become his personal passion. I believed he meant what he said.
He had proposed the idea, did everything necessary to make it happen, and was prepared to leave it at that – especially when, in 1976, MacKay resigned the chairmanship.
But it wasn’t over. George Manos, the long-time New Glasgow teacher who had proven in his high school years that he loved sports, stepped up.
He explained his decision: “The marathon was Johnny’s passion. I became very, very attached to Johnny Williston, right from the start. If you were doing something for Johnny Williston, you’ve got a friend for life. Our families became very, very close through that association.”
More than four decades later, it’s one of the most successful annual happenings on Nova Scotia’s sports schedule.
When “annual” became the operative word, I wondered how long it would continue when key people began to withdraw their services. The volunteer structure remained in place, with new faces always available to step in for parting members.
Johnny Miles passed away. Johnny Williston, too. But the county’s sporting folks made sure the marathon continued. Manos chaired the organizing group for years, doing a superb job.
More recently, there have been full and half marathons, a 10-kilometre classic, a five-kilometre fun run, a student challenge, a kids fun run. You name it.
As in the past, what is now called the Johnny Miles Running Event has another very dedicated individual at the top – businessman Terry Curley, the county’s Tim Horton.
Now 54 years old, Curley has done it all. He spent many years as director of operations for the Hortons locations in the county, he’s served as a member of town council, he’s a family guy and, for sure, an ideal example of what volunteerism means.
He was always a sports guy. While growing up in New Glasgow’s south end, he was involved in hockey, rugby, basketball, golf, skiing, running, triathlon, cycling, skiing and ski patrol — and I probably overlooked something.
“Our mandate is and always has been to build a healthier community,” he told another newspaper a short while ago.
Terry and Carol Curley have been just as important to this ongoing success story as the others through the years.
It has become what Mayor Nancy Dicks describes as “an iconic event.”
An interesting fact is that it was the Johnny Miles that actually got Curley enthusiastic about the sport in the first place.
When I interviewed him one time, he said it this way: “From the first half-marathon, I fell in love with running. Ever since, every day I have either run, thought about running, or felt guilty about not running. If I had to pick one sport that I really felt passionate about, it’s running.”
And so, from Johnny Williston to George Manos to Terry Curley, one of the province’s most valued athletic adventures will soon become a 50-year success.
That’s quite a feat.