Drawing Life-long Strength from Boston

As I recollect my memories of the Boston Marathon and how I came to run it, it is much like writing my own obituary, because it rises to the top, like the perfect foam on a Guinness beer. That is to say, with great joy, comfort and humor, this race helped shape the person I became. My experience running Boston has played an enduring role through both the difficult times and the brilliant times of celebration.

My personal story includes my parents getting a divorce, which left me without a support system. So in my senior year of high school, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, which eventually got me stationed at the Naval Shipyard in Boston. It was there I met “Jock” Semple, and it was through Jock I was given the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon.

01 barracks Collage
I lived in the Marine Barracks just a short distance over the Charles River Bridge. (The bottom photo was taken just before I reported in from Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia. But I served with all these jarheads.)

As a USMC serviceman stationed at the Boston Naval Shipyard, on my time off I would often walk about the Boston Common; and so I happened upon the physical therapy business of Johnny “Jock” Semple. I was attracted to the running awards he had in his office, something as a passerby I could see from the outside.

Western Hills High School Cross Country Team - early 1970s.
Western Hills High School Cross Country Team – early 1970s (me in white t-shirt).

I had run cross country in high school and was very impressed with what I saw through Mr. Semple’s window. I went inside and introduced myself, and a very kind, grandfatherly type, Scottish sounding gentleman took an interest in me. Over the year we had occasion to visit and develop a friendship. I was also impressed to learn he had served in the Coast Guard during the war years. Jock Semple registered me in the 1973 Boston Marathon as a guest runner. All these years later, it still seems astonishing I finished the whole race. I was blessed to have known the gentle giant of a Christian man who took an interest in a lance corporal from Texas. He had a major impact on my life, and I will always have a special place in my heart for Johnny Semple.

At first there was no way I could have known he was a legendary figure in the history of the marathon. I later learned leading up to the 1972 Boston Marathon, Johnny Semple was not always a gracious host to runners. Apparently before then he did not have much patience with women runners, or with untrained college kids seeking attention, or people in the stunt category who wanted disrespect his race trying for another at-a-boy for accomplishment glory. But in 1973, that was not the Johnny Semple I met and got to know. He was a kind, gracious and humble man, wme in white t-shirt)ho took an interest in a very inexperienced marine lance corporal.

Kent Berry, 1973
Kent Berry, 1973

While stationed at the Marine Barracks, Boston Naval Shipyard, I found out a good many of the Marines there were native Bostonians. This included the commanding officer at the time, Lieutenant Colonel John R. Yates, Jr. Our First Sergeant was also from Boston. I was a part of the interior guard section. Captain Hunt was the guard section officer, and he had played football for Boston University, so he was also a very proud native. Captain Hunt was put off with me because the Commanding Officer and First Sergeant had him called him on the carpet because I was not getting enough time to train. As a form of harassment, I was made to move all my gear from the second to the third story of the historic Marine Barracks legal section.

At one point, our First Sergeant thought I would have trouble getting registered, and so he called Johnny Semple on the telephone. He did not know Jock had already registered me himself. So, while I stood in front of him too surprised to speak, the First Sergeant made his call to Johnny, proceeding to tell him what an outstanding Marine I was. “A Vietnam Veteran,” he said (which I was not: a Vietnam era veteran, yes, but not a Vietnam vet!). All the while Johnny was saying “No way can we enter him now,” until the First Sergeant gave him my name: “John Kent Berry.” At which point Johnny exclaimed “Why didn’t you tell me his name! He is already registered and I did it myself!” Those were the words our First SGT echoed back to me after he had hung up the phone.

On a warm day which saw past and future champs drop out because of the heat, I finished the race in under four hours.
On a warm day which saw past and future Boston champs drop out because of the heat, I finished the race in under four hours. (Many non-marines in this photo can be spotted by their facial hair.)

So I ran the Boston. It was good I finished because when I got to the finish line, LTC Yates was there in full uniform, waiting for me with his staff driver and our training NCO (Non Commissioned Officer). (Johnny Semple was there as well, but he was there for all of us…).

Captain Hunt apologized to me for saying there was no way in hell I was going to finish that race. He was very sincere in his apology and said he was proud of me.

The image from the Forest Gump movie of the feather floating in air remains an inspiration to me. You see the feather floating in the beginning of the movie and at the end of it, a symbol of providence. At one point in the story, Forest “just started running and running.” Much later, after miles and miles, one day he just stopped running and said, “That’s all I have to say about that.” But his story did not end there. In my mind the providential winds that direct our lives to places we would never otherwise go on our own, challenge us to be our best in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. And if we stay in the race, those same providential winds will pick us up again, and continue to create a persevering sustainment and resiliency that will eventually mend our broken wings and elevate us to taking just one more step in the completion of our race in front of us.

It was that way for me in the 1973 Boston. Gathering in a rather large gym like area in Hopkinton, my thoughts were, “Well, here I am, officially registered with a number. And to think my high school principal once brought my mother to tears by saying, ‘he will end up on drugs and in prison’.” But that was back before I began running.

04 1973 video clipOne outstanding Boston image I will never forget, and I have used a hundred fold times, is when I was about 18 miles into the race, one of those yellow school buses slowly crept up beside me, slowing down to a crawl. The little door swung open and the driver leaned over toward me and looked straight at me. I thought to myself, if I look at him one more time, I will get on that bus. I told myself “Oh hell no!” and I motioned to him to go on.

This memory gave me a new metaphor of what it might mean to approach the heart break hills of life, and learn from them as a way to become stronger and more flexible in life.

After the Marine Corps, I eventually earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Wesleyan and then a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. I served 36 years total military duty, including two combat tours as an Army Chaplain to Iraq (2005 and 2008) and one combat tour to Afghanistan in 2009. I retired as a Lieutenant Colonial from the Army Reserve.

I live in Crawford Texas now. I am an Elder in the United Methodist Church, currently serving an appointment in the Central Texas Conference.

I just recently finished post graduate work in Theological Studies from the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, and have been accepted to work on another masters degree from Tarleton State University in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Why not? I am only just 62, celebrating 30 years of marriage to my wonderful wife Vicki, and have three adult children with four grandchildren. God is Good.

05 Afghanistan with SST Harvey
With Staff Sergeant Stan Harvey while providing religious support at a Combat Operations Base in a remote mountainous area of Afghanistan (2009 ).

During my combat tours, I drove all across Iraq supporting our troops, and flew from one end to the other of Afghanistan in support of eleven provincial reconstruction teams while serving with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Blackhorse) 1st Squadron – 221st Calvary. This duty in Iraq and Afghanistan left me with unresolved challenges that surfaced one day as I was driving home from a nursing home visit. I overreacted and flipped my car three times. The District Attorney for our county dismissed the DWI charge I was arrested on, but that incident led me on a journey with the Veterans Administration. After one year of outpatient therapy and a disability rating of 30% Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I learned to lean again on that marathon metaphor of a lesson: self-discovery is not without pain, but, oh my, how it develops character!

I believe my positive experiences with the legendary Johnny “Jock” Semple have allowed me to deal more effectively PTSD. The mindset I developed during distance running has helped me with everything else. I know running the Boston was so much more than just another thing to accomplish. I might add we are never successful by ourselves, and as people who have run and finished a race like Boston are all too aware, sometimes painfully, of this life lesson: “What does not kill us indeed makes us stronger.” Thanks be to God, I am still working as a pastor in full connection with my conference.

Blessings and prayers to all of our future Boston Marathon runners. I am with you in spirit.

And may the souls of all the departed rest in peace, especially my friend Johnny “Jock” Semple. He took the time to invest in me, and I believe the spirit of the Boston Athletic Association is reflected in the love and devotion of this man, a person who changed a great deal in his own professional career, to take the time for an 18 year old, non-proven athlete, such as I was then.

Kent Berry
Crawford, Texas
April 16, 1973