Tom Fleming Athletic Complex, photo by Joel Pasternack
Updated April 23, 2018
Original post was May 11, 2017
Tom Fleming passed away unexpectedly on April 19, 2017. Jeff Benjamin, a long time friend. Tom Fleming was one of those peope, so full of life. I was so touched at the NYRR Hall of Fame when Tom’s daughter spoke of missing her dad. At the end of the day, the running, and memories, and a guy who was a day to a daughter and son. Tom Fleming, we miss you.
Tom Fleming was one of my heroes. He was one of the hardest working guys in the sport and one of the guttiest. When he went into coaching, he worked with athletes like Joe Lemay and Carol Ann Letko, who both shared his work ethic and drive.
I interviewed Tom in 2014, at the RRCA Hall of Fame event. I had met Tom twenty years before but had known and admired him since the 1970s. I spoke to George Hirsch, founder of Runner magazine, long time publisher at RW and Chairman of NYRR, about how I always see Tom Fleming in that great picture of him leading Boston 1979 in the pages of Runner.
Jeff Benjamin wrote and compiled the following piece on Tom Fleming, a dear friend of Jeff’s. Jeff wrote me that this article was the hardest one he had ever written.
Keep Tom Fleming, his family and friends in your thoughts and prayers, and remember Toms’ laugh, which was infectious.
On the last Sunday of the month, this writer, along with others, woke up early and continued a ritual which perhaps thousands of runners of all abilities in the New York-New Jersey-New England area had been practicing for close to 5 decades- getting in one’s car early enough to trek over to Bloomfield, New Jersey and arrive by 8 am to go for the Sunday long run with a real-life world-class runner, Tom Fleming.
Later on, runners would make the same Sunday morning trek to Brookdale park in Bloomfield to be advised by that same Tom Fleming, who had then gone on to become a world class Coach, creating successful athletes from High School all the way up to the Olympic level, while teaching 4th grade at Montclair Kimberley Academy in nearby Montclair.
Sadly, this past Sunday’s trek for many was to say goodbye.
Hundreds of Fleming’s’ students, friends, family, former and current students and a host of others paid tribute at a Private memorial service in his honor at the Montclair school. Fleming, who tragically and suddenly died of a sudden heart attack on April 19th while coaching his MKA high school team at a local meet, was remembered by speakers as not only the world class 2:12:05 Boston Marathon nor the two victories in the early Central Park looped NYC Marathons, but as the honest, straightforward and loyal friend, family member, and mentor he became.
Tom Derderian’s masterpiece book “Boston Marathon” aptly describes the larger than life figure who Everyone came to know–
“Tom Fleming from New Jersey was “everything New Jersey” –big, boisterous, the Cassius Clay of New Jersey. In a sport of tight-lipped introverts, Tom Fleming was pure lip-brash, big-shouldered, grinning, a verbal brawler. He would argue any point of view with anyone. He could not keep his opinions to himself.”
Fleming’s MO carried him from a New Jersey state HS champion after only 1 year of training to becoming one of the youngest distance runners to be invited to train and be evaluated at the USA Olympic Training Center in Colorado.
Totally committed and inspired, Flemings’ training consisted of easily breaking 150 miles per week in training and sometimes running 4 times a day, thereby accumulating 200 miles for those particular weeks, and rising to the World Class level. Fleming won fifteen International Marathons and, during that age of the strict, archaic and hypocritical amateur rules, took up with his fellow competitor, the late Steve Prefontaine, desire to fight the hypocrisy of shamatuerism. Posters of runners along with countless books on running and training flooded his room.
Of course as many know Fleming’s great quote wound up on many other runner’s walls as well-“Somewhere in the world, Someone is training when you’re not. When you race him, he’ll win.”
Later on, using that same drive and passion, Fleming went into coaching athletes at all levels as well. His most notable athletes were two who qualified for the Olympic Games – Anne Marie Letko (1996) & Joe LeMay (2000).
Here are some reminisces from Fleming’s friends–
Bob Hodge- One of the Great Boston Area Distance Runners –
“TF Flyer, Tom Fleming, I best remember our time in that vacationing professor’s house in South Miami in the winter of 1980. Tom was pure NJ. Every single morning, TF would run 15 miles and drag me with him through Coconut Grove with the Parrots of April squawking overhead, in the crushing heat and humidity of a Miami winter morning. I woke up to TF’s knocking on the door and then his voice, “Bobby, time for your medicine” By the time we got to the end of the first block, TF was 2-3 steps ahead of me and there he generally stayed. On other days, I only tried to keep him in sight.
TF only stopped on a run to poop and I always hoped he would need to so I could catch a breather. Of course if I stopped for any reason, TF was gone. Though just at the end of our run we would stop at a bridge crossing to look for Manatees that would congregate there. The house had avocado trees which I thought were quite exotic and I tried them for the first time in my life and loved them. We would finish our runs and I would sit on the stoop for an hour staring into space with Pepsi and water, what-not and avocados.
TF would immediately be off to the next thing making plans for the day. We had visits from other runners including Bill Rodgers, Kirk Pfeffer and Guenter Mihelke. We watched the Winter Olympics in the evenings including the USA Hockey Team victory.
In 1980, we were dreaming our own Olympic dreams, that is why we had come to Miami, but now the boycott loomed. One day on our morning run I bonked and just started walking. TF never looked back. My mind was in a storm. “What am I doing here getting run off my feet every freakin day with no Olympics”? When I got back I started packing up my Mustang and getting ready to drive home. TF just shook his head at me. “Carter ain’t gonna stop this thing if the USOC has any balls. if they don’t we just run Boston instead, I would rather win Boston than anything!”
On the weekend TF went to a race somewhere and I traveled to Jacksonville and won the River Run 15K. The hard effort was bearing fruit.
During our time in Florida we traveled to the Ohme 30K in Japan an awesome trip. In 1986 we traveled to New Zealand together, Tom and then wife Barbara and month old child Margo.
So many memories of TF who I last saw this past summer in Eugene at the Trials. See you down the road, buddy.”
Joel Pasternack- Top New Jersey runner and coach and Fleming’s most consistent Training Partner-
“Tom had an affect on so many lives. I Met Tom in the fall of 1969 when my college, Monmouth, ran against Paterson State. After the race, we talked and found out we lived three miles from each other. He said anytime I’m home call and we’ll run. That became a very popular habit of training together for 18 years. Tom has been quoted that I was the person he ran the most miles with, over 10,000. Tom helped me make my big breakthrough in marathon running. In the 1972 Boston I ran 2:34.35 placing 53rd. Then in January of 1973 I ran with Tom for ten miles of the Jersey Shore 26.2. That helped me run 2:25.08 for second behind Tom and his first time under 2:20. We traveled to many races over the years in the 70s with both our dads. The biggest trip was the two of us to the 1972 marathon Olympic trials in Eugene. Like you said Tom always ran ahead and wanted to win. The weather got to him and he dropped out. But after that his career sky rocketed.
In closing Tom was a phenomenal friend to me and my family. He was my mentor and made me the person I am today in life and coaching. I can’t believe I won’t get share all the special things that life brings us with him.”
Greg Meyer-1983 Boston Marathon Champion
“With Tom in the race, you knew it would always be a test of fitness. He worked hard and wanted you to do the same if you expected to beat him. That said, once the race was over, he was the guy entertaining everyone!
One story I’ll never forget is going on a run with him through the woods in NH from the Mt. Washington resort. As we ran down the train we rounded a bend, and there stood two adult moose. City boy Tom looks at me as says “let’s chase them”. I politely said “you go, I’ll watch!” I then told him moose are the most dangerous critters in the states… you don’t mess with them! No fear in that guy!”
Women’s Running Pioneer Kathrine Switzer
“Tom pushed it to the limit in every marathon. He was like a big kid in his enthusiasm. He wanted to slap everyone on the back and make them run with him. He was incredibly supportive of women, as early as 1973, when he encouraged me to run the San Blas Half-Marathon in Puerto Rico, a huge race at that time, despite the disapproving local officials.”
Joe Martino – New England Runner and longtime friend–
“In the fall of 1970, Ed Walkwitz, John Jarek and I were on our way down to run in the Atlantic City Marathon. As we approached New Jersey he suggested that we call Tom and perhaps stay in Bloomfield for the night. Ed had been Tom’s roommate at the Olympic Training camp the previous summer. Apparently Tom told Ed if you are ever in New Jersey that he was welcome to stay. We ended up staying the night at the Fleming’s. I learned from Tom that we were both in the NYC Marathon the month before. Tom was 2nd and I was 13th in 2:56. It was a Very Hot Day on a wicked demanding course. Tom was 19, I was 18 and, Rick Sherlund who became friends with Tom was 16! Rick always tells the story that he crossed the finish line just behind Tom…..But Rick had one more lap to go!
On Saturday morning, we went to Van Cortlandt Park with Tom and his Dad. Tom was running a cross country race, representing Patterson State. He was beaten by a guy from Coast Guard Academy. I think Tom told me it was the only time that he was beaten there.
In 1982 Tom came to Natick, where I was living at the time. He stayed at my place and on Sunday morning he invited me out to Bill Rodgers’s home for a run. Tom showed me lots of running loops which he and Bill trained on- loops right in my back yard. A few days later, I was out on a run and ran into Bill and, long story short, we began training together 4-5 days a week. From then on Tom, Bill and I would get together and enjoy many adventures together.”
Bill Rodgers- 4-time Boston & NYC Marathon Champion
“I met Tom Fleming in February of 74 when we represented the USA in the San Blas Half Marathon in Coamo, Puerto Rico.Fellow American Former Uconn star John Vitale was our third Team member. San Blas is a very tough race- very hilly, hot and humid but, the people were terrific. San Blas was also my 1st International race. We had our USA Uniforms and I was rather excited about reaching this level of competition!
Tom introduced me to European and Boston marathon Champion Ron Hill and other International athletes. Two Olympic medalists from the 72 Munich Games were competing on behalf of Finland, Lasse Viren and Tapio Kantanen. They were considered favorites. I didn’t care and chased them both but the Finns won. I faded badly and John Vitale and I were both passed by Tom who was a prodigious trainer and strong even in the heat. When I was struck by the 78 degree heat at Boston in 73 and dropped out Tom flew to a fine 2nd place.
Over the heady years of the first Running Boom, we became friends and trained together everywhere. We used to travel to Phoenix, Arizona, in February, for the Runners Den 10k and stay with mutual friends Rob and Ann Wallack. Rob and Ann had a beautiful Irish setter who was as wired as Tom and I! The Problem was he was a barker so when he got out of control Rob or Ann would puta collar on him that produced a mild shock to teach him to calm down.
One dayTom thought it would be a good joke to place it over my head as I sat at the breakfast table. I got shocked and jumped into the air! TF was hysterical with laughter as I threw objects at him. He was a supernova of energy but was also funny as heck. He always did great Yoda and Elmo imitations and would be telling stories nonstop as we ran.
In ’77 Tom and I placed 1s and 4th at the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan.
I call Fukuoka the “Japanese Boston Marathon” due to its 70 year history of top marathoners participation.
I beieve we still have the highest one, two finish of any American participation at this superb marathon. We celebrated in Tokyo with Plum wine along with our mutual friend, Tommy Leonard, the Boston Bartender who orginated the Falmouth Road Race.
Of course we track, XC and road race athletes toiled under the scourge of Amateurism. But we tried to be Professionals as much as we could..Tom and I were both teachers who ran 125 miles every week, but always wondered why all of us could not be compensated.
I believe Tom Fleming was one of if not the first modern road racer marathoner to go professional with his marathon races in LA and elsewhere in 1980.
The Association of Road Racing Athletes followed Toms efforts in June 81 with the running of the Cascade Runoff 15k in Portland we were all a bit freer.
Tom went on to Coach XCountry and to teach 4th graders history. The fierce competitor mellowed out under youth influence..he passed the Torch.”
From Alberto Salazar–
“Most of my interactions with Tom took place after we had both retired. He was a few years ahead of me and was probably in his last years of competitive running when I was still concentrating on the track. My earliest memories of him were of someone that was a very tough racer and who trained unbelievably hard. He was one of the last Americans in a time when we were the best Marathon country in the world. We believed we trained as smart and as hard as anyone else and we raced accordingly. He devoted himself to teaching and coaching kids. His tough attitude will be missed.”
“Run steady Tom.”
Bell Lap on Monday Evening June 5 at 6PM The “Tom Fleming Athletic Complex” will be dedicated Brookdale Park in Bloomfield NJ
To RSVP please call 973-621-4400
Above- 1979 Boston Marathon -5th- Jock Semple Presenting Tom Fleming with his Trophy
L-R – Tom, Daughter Margot Fleming, Bill Rodgers and Jeff Benjamin
Below – The 1998 Jesse Owens Dinner
L-R Jeff Benjamin, Haile Gebrselassie, Wendy Neely, Tom Fleming