Metro

KEVIN CULLEN

Jack Coakley was a trailblazer in a wheelchair

Three weeks before he died, Jack Coakley (left) met folk singer Tom Rush for the first time at a concert in Vermont. It was the 25th time Coakley saw Rush in concert.
Don Keith
Three weeks before he died, Jack Coakley (left) met folk singer Tom Rush for the first time at a concert in Vermont. It was the 25th time Coakley saw Rush in concert.

When the Boston Harbor Hotel opened 30 years ago, Bill Rodgers, the four-time Boston Marathon winner, was asked to give a speech to mark the occasion.

While there, someone handed Rodgers passes for the hotel’s health club, and Rodgers handed the passes to Jack Coakley, who worked at Rodgers’s running shop at Quincy Market.

The next day, and just about every day after that, Coakley showed up in his wheelchair to work out.

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The gym at Rowes Wharf attracts some of the most influential, affluent people downtown. Jack Coakley wasn’t affluent. But he was influential. He influenced generations about what it means to be disabled and what it doesn’t.

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He grew up in Mattapan and was 5 years old when he was struck by polio. The polio vaccine was developed the same year Jack lost his ability to walk.

His father sat down with him and said, “You can do anything you want. You’ve just got to put your mind to it.”

That advice sank in, but the challenges facing a disabled kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s were considerable. By the time he was in his 20s, Jack was heavy and miserable.

More than 35 years ago, Charlie Rodgers, Bill’s brother, was jogging around Jamaica Pond when he came across Jack Coakley rolling himself along in a hospital-issued wheelchair.

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“He said he had to get in shape,” Charlie Rodgers said. “Then I started seeing him at road races.”

Jack Coakley was a trailblazer. Along with the great Bobby Hall, he insisted that wheelchair racers be allowed into some of the country’s preeminent races. And they met resistance at some.

At the Newport marathon one year, Jack was convinced they were going to throw him out. Patti Catalano, a premier long-distance runner, noticed how anxious Jack was at the starting line.

“They don’t want me here,” Jack said.

Patti Catalano told him not to worry.

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“You’re with me,” she said. “We’ll run together.”

Jack stayed with her for the first 10 miles.

When Bobby Hall left his job at Bill Rodgers’s running store, Jack — who had become well-known in racing circles — took over the position and worked at the store for almost 30 years. He held court on the second floor, where they sold T-shirts.

Don Keith
Jack Coakley never let winter slow him down. He got snow tires for his wheelchair.

After leaving the store, Bobby Hall started making chairs specifically designed for wheelchair racers, and Jack’s times got better. He raced all over the country. He climbed Mount Washington, cars passing him on the road, just as they passed him downtown.

Every day, Jack Coakley arrived at the Boston Harbor Hotel so he could be there when the elevator to the health club was activated at 5:30 a.m. The weather never fazed him. He got snow tires for his wheelchair and made the 2-mile trip to Rowes Wharf from his West End apartment without fail.

He was in the same row of lockers as George Regan, the PR honcho; Ray Kwasnick, a lawyer at Goulston & Storrs; and Don Keith, a financial adviser. They loved him.

“Jack worked out like a beast,” said Keith. “After he did his upper body and cardio, he’d jump in the pool and swim 60 lengths, with no leg kick.”

When he left the gym, to face another day with obstacles his friends couldn’t imagine, Jack Coakley always said the same thing: “I’m just gonna pretend that I’m normal.”

Last Monday, Jack Coakley was waiting as usual for the elevator to turn on at Rowes Wharf. It was about a half hour later, a little after 6 in the morning, when he collapsed on one of the machines. He was dead before he hit the floor. He was 67.

Sharon Donovan, a trainer at the gym and close friend, was there when he died.

“I always worried Jack would get hit by a car,” she said. “If he had to go, at least he was surrounded by his friends. But this place will not be the same without him. None of us will be.”

Jack Coakley’s ashes will be spread in the Cape Cod Canal, where he used to fish with his dad, the man who told him he could do anything.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.