More than 400 runners and many other guests turned out for the induction ceremony of the Western New York Running Hall of Fame on Friday night in Buffalo. The late Tom Donnelly was the only member of the Class of 2015. I was given the chance to tell that crowd about his credentials. Here's how the speech read.
- Budd Bailey
It’s always an honor to serve as something of the host of this annual ceremony. However, this year’s edition has a bittersweet and emotional feeling to it. We all knew that Tom was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame someday. He was nominated a few times, but he always said that he wasn’t ready for that honor quite yet. Well, Tom, if you’re listening up there with such people as John Beishline, Emery Fisher and Henry Sypniewski, no one is going to stop us from saluting you now. Barring an unexpected lightning bolt from the heavens, we are here to celebrate the contributions of one of the most important persons in the history of running in Western New York.
When the Board of Directors of the Hall met in the winter to talk about nominees, there was agreement that there were several reasons to induct Tom – one for every connection he had to the local running community. Let’s go through some of them, just in case you need to refresh your memory.
In this first part of his life, Tom was not a runner. He didn’t take many steps in haste until he was 25 years old. Then he realized he needed to lose some weight. For those who only knew him in the past several years, a fat Tom Donnelly is a difficult concept to grasp. He took up running, and eventually discovered that he enjoyed it and was good at it. Tom ran the Skylon Marathon in a personal best of two hours, 35 minutes and 10 seconds. He ran more than 30 other marathons, with about a dozen of them in Boston.
Once Tom started to slow down on the roads just a bit, his actions off the roads seemed to speed up. Tom became the president of the Greater Buffalo Track Club in 1987, and he discovered that he was good at the skills needed in the position. The man knew how to organize events and work with people. Those skills came in handy later when he was president of the Checkers Athletic Club, and an advisor to one of the biggest success stories in this sport during the last decade, Girls on the Run.
Eventually his talents put Tom in great demand in running circles. In 2004, he became the race director for the Turkey Trot. This Thanksgiving Day tradition was a nice event when Tom arrived on the scene, attracting about 5,000 runners. Step by step, the Turkey Trot grew more professional by the year, and people responded to that. By 2013, Tom’s last race in that job, about 14,000 runners took part with many others shut out because of a necessary cap on entries. The Trot has become nationally known in recent years.
That same formula applied to Tom’s work with the Buffalo Marathon. About 10 years ago, the race had found a home on Memorial Day weekend, but still felt like something of a Mom-and-Pop operation. Tom’s role grew over the years, and he brought in some top people to help him and Beishline. Tom took over as race director for the 2014 running after Beishline’s death. Many were impatient for the event to become bigger, but Tom saw that slow and steady growth was the way to approach that issue. The race keeps getting better, year after year, and has become a fixture on the community’s sports calendar.
That would be a full plate for most people, especially someone with a family and a job, but Tom had more to give. For example, in 2010, Tom was instrumental in the creation of the Western New York Running Hall of Fame. He was an easy choice as the head of the Board of Directors.
Then there were the unofficial positions. When there was a pub crawl involving runners in the Buffalo area, Tom no doubt was organizing it. He designed shirts to hand out at races. When I was pressed into duty at a water stop of the Engineering Society’s race one year, Tom was next to me – teaching me the proper way to hand the cups to runners.
Along the way, Tom collected friends. He seemed to know everyone connected with running in Erie and Niagara Counties. When I needed the answer to a question for an article, I usually called Tom first. If he didn’t know the answer, he knew someone who would. Tom was a one-man Rolodex.
Where did he find the time for all this? He delegated. Tom found good people, gave them responsibility, listened to their comments, took action when necessary, and gave them the credit. Every boss in America should follow that formula.
And where did he find the energy? I discovered a secret about that once by accident. I was headed to UB for a Hall of Fame meeting, but stopped first at the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Bailey Ave. for dinner. Arriving just after me was Tom, looking so trim that I figured he was there to picket. When I looked at him with puzzlement, he smiled and said, “You gotta do it every once in a while.” Come to think of it, that’s a good start for developing an approach to all of life.
Tom’s sudden passing was a shock to everyone, and part of the reason was that we all thought Tom would take the sport of running to new heights in the years to come. Sadly, he never got the chance. But as Jim Nowicki put it, “He taught everyone what it takes. It will take a lot of people, but I think he has laid the foundation. It’s going to be his wish to carry on the traditions.”
So that’s what we’re doing tonight – continuing our tradition of identifying and honoring the most important figures in the history of running in Western New York. And just in case he’s still listening up there and hasn’t gone on a 12-mile run, please give a warm salute to the sole member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015, Tom Donnelly.