Remembering The Westport A.C.

If you woke up early enough on a Saturday you’d see them begin their ascent up Cross Highway. Stride-for-stride, for almost three decades, they’d run during those twilight hours on dozens of routes around town with fun, alliterative names: “The Gault Gander,” “The Square Scamper” and “The Dentist Drag.”[1]

Fun names and a fun group of men. At the time of the groups’ founding, the denizens of Westport were slightly more diverse in occupation and politics and these runners reflected this. They were artists[2], educators, engineers and businessmen. They may have held different perspectives but were all unified by a shared interest in fitness and fraternity.

A.C. runners sing Christmas carols at 7:30 a.m. in the front yard of a no-show group member (offending member seen at left in pajamas) during a morning run in the late ‘80s

The group was founded in the ‘70s by former, longtime Westporter Bob Gralley.

“I started running late. I was 45, commuting to the city, and noticed I was putting on a few pounds. I decided I needed to do something,” Gralley said.

The jogging boom in America was still very nascent at the time. Gralley’s 45th birthday was a couple of years after the inaugural New York City Marathon in 1970. Now global corporate behemoths like Nike built their empires on the growth in demand for running shoes and apparel just beginning around this time.

The Westport A.C. logo

Gralley started small. He began by just seeing if he could run one mile. He kept at it and soon made it a part of his routine, running before the train in the morning. Over time he found interest in others in the area for weekend group runs. The length of their runs grew and they started to refer to themselves as the “The Westport A.C.” (Athletic Club).

Dr. Glenn Hightower— the late, much beloved, longtime Principal of Bedford Middle School— was one of the first and most active members.

After Hightower passed away earlier this year, Gralley recounted his relationship with him: “Glenn and I met in a rather unusual way over 55 years ago. In those days, jogging was not an “in” sport. In fact, if someone saw you running down the street in a pair of shorts they thought you were probably being chased by someone. Nevertheless one day I decided to see if I could run a mile, never expecting to find someone else doing the same thing. But there was another runner and you guessed it: It was Glenn. We met, we bonded, and became as close as any two can be over those years.”

The group had a roster of almost 70 participants from Westport and neighboring towns (though the turnout of regulars was more modest). Still, through the snow and sleet and shine you knew there would be a reliable, hearty group of harriers ready to push off on Saturday mornings at 7:15 a.m. sharp at the end of the cul-de-sac at St. George’s place.

They’d finish each run with cold iced tea and fellowship in “The Clubhouse” (Gralley’s basement) where, over time, the walls became adorned with photos and memorabilia that commemorated the group’s racing achievements.

The “A.C.” became a support group. Group members challenged and pushed each other in marathon training. They’d participate in some ultra marathons like the JFK 50 (still going) in Maryland. They’d even work to give back to the community, staging epic endurance stunts like 24-hour-long relay runs on the old Bedford and Staples tracks where they’d raise pledges based on how many total miles they could run during that time period. These ended up raising tens of thousands for local charitable programs.[3] (1978 Westport News coverage of one of these runs.)

After running 241.25 miles for charity in 1978

They also held annual awards ceremonies to celebrate their accomplishments and the “strides” they’d made that year.

Gralley even published a very funny newsletter celebrating and poking fun at members called the “The Westport A.C. Poor Times: All the news on feet we print.”

From bottom to top: Kaz Oda (with wooden club sign), Guy Stretton to his right, Tom Kretsch to his left, Phil Restifo, Glenn Hightower, Adam Starr (behind Hightower), John Verel, Patrick Kennedy.

Westporter Patrick Kennedy (pictured in the back of the group shot at right) recalls the positive impact the group had on him: “I’d never really run before but these guys encouraged me and I wound up doing six marathons after joining the A.C.”

When Gralley moved to Maryland with his wife Betty in 2002 so they could be closer to their children Kennedy took over the hosting duties at his home one-tenth of a mile from the A.C.’s original headquarters.

Kennedy also emphasizes how nice the quirky uniqueness of the group was: “We were a raggedy bunch but there’s something special about your running friends. We’re a different bread!”

With aging membership, the weekly meetings ceased a few years ago but Kennedy points out that the copyright on the club name and charter remain open for transference to worthy, more youthful heirs.

Bob Gralley!

Remarkably Gralley, at 91 years of age, is still at it! For someone who didn’t start running until 45, he’s now run over 42 marathons and 17 half-marathons and was the oldest finisher at this year’s Baltimore Half Marathon. This year he was joined by his sons Craig and Kevin and they all crossed the finish line together.

He ran his fastest time of 3 hours, 4 minutes, 18 seconds twice — at the New York and Boston Marathons.

Always meticulous, Bob has logged every mile he’s run in a black, three-ring binder and reports that he’s logged over 56,000 miles. That’s the equivalent of twice around the earth!

Commenting on Gralley’s incredible longevity Kennedy says, “Through his dedication to running Bob taught us all something important about getting the most out of life: just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

Westport A.C. Flying Footnotes:

[1] A.C. Running Routes:

[2] Information on Artists in the Westport A.C.:

More coverage of Bob Gralley:

Additional coverage of the A.C.: