Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 13 Nov 2004 21:46:48 -0500

Always a Marine

RUNNING COMMENTARY 545

My first column in Marathon & Beyond spoke of Paul Reese. "The grandest old man of the roads," I called him. He was 87, the oldest person to run across the United States (at 73), the only one to cross all 50 states (finishing at 80), the author of four books on these subjects.

He was also the oldest e-mail pal I had. And he was the master of the gentle jibe that I never found insulting. An example: his calling me a "bow-legged Iowa pig farmer."

Paul responded to the column as I would have expected: "Cutest old man, most handsome old man, most dashing old man -- all these, while appropriate and applicable, are quite a few notches below 'grandest'."

This would be my last personal note from Paul. I'm glad he saw that tribute, because he was grand and because he wouldn't see another column in that magazine.

He told in that same letter about facing surgery for a defective aortic valve. "I'm attempting to hold out until January," he said of that operation. "I want to emerge from the surgery and recovery and to get back to healthy living (Krispy Kreme donuts, In/Out hamburgers, pizza and all such!)."

Paul's condition couldn't wait until the new year. His surgery was moved to this October.

"The good news is that I'm still here to tell about it," he wrote the next week in a group letter to friends. Complications followed.

He wrote again to us friends in late October, with a good-bye of sorts. "One thing you learn as you sift through life is that the most precious gift of all is love, and I'm blessed to have a generous share of that. Of course, it could be argued that I am such a splendid person, what other choice is there but to love me!"

This was Paul's way of leaving us laughing before and after the tears. Those would arrive within three weeks, when news of his passing reached me by way of a Sacramento Bee obituary.

The article was short on detail. It mentioned only that Paul had died "last week" and that the cause wasn't reported.

I know what it was: a broken heart in both senses of the word. The unsuccessful surgery left him unable to get around on foot as he always had, and doubting that he ever would again.

Paul's funeral coincided with the Marine Corps birthday. That was fitting, because he was a Marine for 63 of his 87 years.

My M&B column tells of mistakenly calling him an "ex-Marine." He shot back, "There's no such thing. Once a Marine, always a Marine."

He served during three wars -- the Pacific phase of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. After retirement he fought better battles -- with marathons (where he set a PR of 2:39 at age 54), ultras, the 50 states and his books.

Paul ended his first book, Ten Million Steps, with this line: "One of the secrets of aging gracefully is always to have something to look forward to."

Two more books -- Go East Old Man, and The Old Man and the Road -- followed. He left behind a fourth book, as yet unpublished, titled America on Foot.

He also left another long trip unfinished. In 2003 he'd crossed Montana (with wife Elaine, as always, driving their motorhome) on what was intended to be a multi-stage passage from the Canadian to the Mexican border. This wasn't a bad way to go -- still wanting to do more at 87.

Paul is the third older hero I've lost this year, after Jack Foster and Johnny Kelley. This is the chance you take, and one well worth taking, when you look up to your elders.



Paul Reese in his mid-80s.
(Barbara Shaw photo)

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