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Running / By Budd Bailey: HOF recognizes Donnelly as one of a kind

The Board of Directors for the Greater Buffalo Running Hall of Fame gathered one chilly February night in the home of new president Bill Donnelly for its first meeting of 2015. Bill had taken over for brother Tom, who died unexpectedly late in 2014.

The major order of business was to set the calendar for the coming year, which included the nomination and election of new inductees. Shortly after Bill opened that subject for discussion, a board member jumped in and suggested that Tom go into the Hall … alone.

The rest of the board all quickly gave variations of the theme, “That’s just what I was going to suggest.” It made Bill Donnelly smile.

“I had thought of that before,” he said. “It was the main thing on my mind. I didn’t think I could do it though. But there wasn’t a single person dissenting. I’m really pleased.”

Therefore, Tom Donnelly will be inducted in the local running Hall on Sept. 4 in Buffalo. It’s the first time that anyone has ever gone in alone.

“Part of me thinks that if I were inducted as a good runner, and I was going in at the same time as Tom, I think I’d just say, ‘Wait until next year. I don’t want to be in the shadows,’ ” Bill said.

If there’s ever a vote to determine who the most unlikely person to be a huge force in Buffalo’s running history, Tom Donnelly just might win it. He wasn’t the athlete of the family. While brothers Mike and Bill were playing baseball and running cross-country as teens, Tom wasn’t in motion. The closest he came was when he took up the game of bridge, which offers mental stimulus but no physical activity.

Tom took up running in 1976 in order to lose weight and add focus to his life. He threw himself into it with a passion, even heading out the door in the midst of the Blizzard of ‘77. (He turned back after a couple of miles). Someone like that usually isn’t satisfied with a couple of laps around the park, and Donnelly entered the 1977 Skylon Marathon. He needed to break 3 hours to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and finished in 2:59:45. Donnelly ran the first of a dozen Bostons in 1978.

Tom got even faster in the years to come. He once ran a 2:35:10 marathon on a windy Skylon course, and finished 10-kilometers in about 32 minutes.

Somewhere along the way, Donnelly took the next step in his running career - helping the sport from an organizational standpoint. Maybe even before he knew it, Tom was a part of local running in a stunning number of ways. Has anyone done more in a lifetime, even a too-short one? Consider the list:

• Race director of the Buffalo Marathon after assisting the organization for several years. He’s credited for helping the race’s steady growth in recent years.

• Race director of the YMCA Turkey Trot, Western New York’s biggest race. Again, the race reached unmatched heights in popularity under his leadership.

• President of the Checkers Athletic Club.

• Coach for some area runners.

• Designer of shirts for some local races.

Tom was even spotted handing out water to runners at a few races when someone was needed there. He also helped countless runners and race directors in a variety of other ways.

That’s why the outpouring of honors since November has been so loud and so long. For example, the recent Elephant Run gave awards named after Tom to winning teams. It was a way of saying thank you for his guidance for establishing the race nine years ago.

“He would be more amazed than anyone over the response,” Bill Donnelly said. “That’s what Julie,” Tom’s wife, “says. He wouldn’t have expected it. He went about his business. This is what he did. He’d be flabbergasted with the response.”

Tom was nominated for the Running Hall of Fame in the past, but he had always said he didn’t want to be considered for that honor. Now, the Hall’s board didn’t have to take no for an answer.

That means the Champions 5K will become a tribute to all Tom did for the runners of Western New York. Bill says the race will double as a family reunion.

“My dad’s not going to be able to come, but everyone else is coming,” he said. “Most of them will be running in the race, and some have never run a race before.”

Race calendar

• Buffalo Marathon and Half-Marathon, Convention Center, 7 a.m. Sunday (sold out).

• Brian Dugan Memorial Scholarship 5K, 1200 Parker Blvd., Tonawanda, 6:30 p.m. Friday.

• Bully Free 5K, 71 Lorraine Ave., Buffalo, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 816-4809.

• Williamsville East 5K, 151 Paradise Road, East Amherst, 7 p.m. Friday, 626-8426.

• Run Along Jericho Road, 5K, 184 Barton St., Buffalo, 9 a.m. Saturday, 348-3000 x405.

• Lockport Memorial 5K, 80 Main St., Lockport, 9 a.m. Saturday, 478-4453.

• Chasing Away the Stigma 5K, Chestnut Ridge Park, Orchard Park, 9:30 a.m. Saturday, 262-2341.

• Pheo Para Troopers 5K, 3964 California Road, Orchard Park, 10 a.m. Saturday, 677-6788.

• James Mets Memorial Run, 5K, Keysa Park, Lancaster, 10 a.m. Saturday, 713-0262.

• Dolphin Dash, 5K Delaware Park, Buffalo, 10 a.m. Saturday.

• Kelly Tough 12K, UB South Campus at Main St., 11 a.m. Saturday, 557-1200 x207.

• Salmon Run, 5K, 57 Harbor St., Wilson, 5 p.m. Saturday, 751-6120.

• Grinder Trail Run, 3.5 miles, Sprague Brook Park, Glenwood, 10 a.m. on May 31, 574-0888.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com