The wonderful world of “Walpole Ed” Damish
(a tribute by Steve Damish)
"Life is meant to be lived!”
- Edward P. Damish
By Steve Damish
Ten hours after the Boston Marathon had begun, legendary runner and marathon veteran Ed Damish appeared to be missing from the field.
He had started the 1996 excursion, his 15th-straight Boston Marathon, at noontime, and although the chip on his shoe registered each mile marker he passed, it had missed several stops. “Walpole Ed” Damish, the fun-loving and famous Walpole runner who has a hometown race named for him, was off course.
The sun had long settled, and even though stragglers still seeped in, the frenzy of the finish line had long faded. So Ed’s family waited, some at the finish line, others watching from home.
“He’s on TV!” someone at home said.
There was Walpole Ed, in a live shot from the finish line, his deep green running shirt dark and drenched, but his expression buoyant, and his face, effervescent. He had, indeed, left the course several times, he was explaining on camera. Once he bought a snack at a convenience store, other times he stopped to hug and thank fans along the route, and at one point, he stopped to talk to appreciative residents of a Newton nursing home, watching from their patio.
“They were there for me. I had to be there for them,” he told TV.
Few in the family were surprised, because this was the wild, crazy, upbeat, energetic, optimistic, inexplicable, spirited, flavorful, fun-loving and wonderful world of Walpole Ed Damish, who never stopped moving, thanking, hugging, kissing, celebrating, walking, running, surprising, uplifting, motivating, joking and embracing everything and everyone in his life – until last week, when he crossed his final finish line at age 93.
He was a joyful soul, happiest with family, filled with faith, and fulfilled by fitness and jogging, which defined much of his mid- to later life. But despite his 19-consecutive Boston Marathons, his two Marine Corps Marathons, a New York Marathon, several runs up Mount Washington in New Hampshire, many races down at Falmouth on Cape Cod, and the thousands of weekend runs he did throughout New England over the course of two-plus decades, it was the marathon called life that he relished most – the journey, that is, that he unblushingly celebrated and savored each and every step of the way.
He completed this marvel-filled marathon on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, when he succumbed after battling several conditions. His official time for this race: 93 years, 61 days and 14 hours.
And the winner: Everyone blessed to know him.
He had slowed his pace in recent days, but approached this finish line as he did all of them: Thrilled to have been in the race, happy to be among friends and loved ones, never complaining, and with a wondrous and deep appreciation of simply being allowed to take part in the fantastic, festive, God-given event that is life – especially life with family.
“People are meant to be loved, and life is meant to be lived,” he always said.
For his journey, this athlete had an incredible team around him, starting with the love of his life, Joanne (Fellows) Damish, whom he married Oct. 20, 1956, and spent 66 years devoted to. The couple lived in Hartford, Conn., after being married, and moved to Irving Drive in Walpole in 1960. Both committed themselves to each other, their family, their faith and their community. Long a community advocate, she became a Town of Walpole selectman, and he would ultimately become Walpole’s longest serving Town Meeting representative. First elected in 1971, he had just won his 17th three-year term this spring.
The team includes their six kids, many of whom were inspired to take up jogging, pursue fitness and celebrate life as their father had. They are Michael E. Damish and wife, Lauren, of Huntington Beach, CA; Daniel J. Damish of Brewster, MA; Diane M. (Damish) Culhane and husband, Peter, of Walpole, MA; Stephen C. Damish and wife, Leslie, of Raynham, MA; Robert B. Damish and wife, Kathleen (Sapelly), of Walpole, MA; and Patrick G. Damish of Mansfield, MA.
His seven grand-children include Dr. Alexis (Damish) Kemp, DO, Nicholas Culhane, Rachel Damish, Casey Culhane, Carolyn Damish, Stephanie Damish and Abigail Damish.
He was many things, but in his heyday, a relentless runner, who spent much of his life promoting fitness and the benefits of an active lifestyle – especially through jogging. To honor him, the town started the “Walpole Ed” 5k Road Race in 2003, using the nickname he had earned by wearing his “Walpole Ed” tank top most races. The Labor Day event has surged in success and drawn hundreds annually, and he personally handed out the trophies and hugged every winner, both walkers and runners, whether they were willing or not.
But as much as he enjoyed completing a race, he rarely checked his finishing time. Instead, like in life, he relished the journey and the people he met along the route, be they strangers, loved ones, or passers-by. To most, he became the embodiment of optimism, energy and joy.
He never smoked, didn’t drink, loved to dance, craved sweets, munched almost daily on coffee cake muffins, made annual family trips to Paragon and Riverside (now Six Flags) Amusement parks, sang without solicitation, and once ran 86 road races in one year.
He rarely stopped moving. He played in the Walpole Tennis Club, Norwood Men’s Club bocce team, the Walpole Italian American bocce club, bowled in a weekly league at the former Petrarca’s in downtown Walpole, binged on weekly Bingo games in Walpole and Norwood, hiked mountains in New Hampshire into his 70s, hit casinos in Connecticut, visited London and Vegas and Aruba and Disney with his kids and their families, and up until a few years ago was riding coasters and even roaring in joy during the Harry Potter Forbidden Journey ride at Universal Studios in Florida.
He loved all, hugged everyone, rarely complained (not counting the Red Sox), had few concerns (not counting the loss of Tom Brady), stayed resoundingly optimistic, never let debt get him down, and celebrated life with a passion for people and fervor for family.
He professed and practiced family, faith, fun, community and commitment, but mostly he celebrated and promoted what he called the big “E” word.
“No, not elephant,” he would say. “ENTHUSIASM!”
His enthusiasm proved infectious, and boundless – and evident even in wartime photos from his service with the U.S. Marines in Korea. He served as an air traffic controller from 1951 to 1954 in South Korea, claiming he once talked down Red Sox legend Ted Williams, whose aircraft had been damaged. But even close enough to the front to be under threat of attack, photos from his service days show him as we all knew him – hugging fellow soldiers, dancing at the base, acting quirky outside the Quonset hut, frolicking, having fun, and never curbing his unbridled love of life, even in a war zone.
So committed was he to the Marines and veterans, he traveled by himself, while still recovering from pneumonia, to Washington, D.C., in June 2010 for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, at which time veterans received medals from South Korea in a ceremony near the Korean War Memorial. “Piece of cake,” he said, when asked how he managed. “I met plenty of friends who took care of me.”
Some of those he had just met, after knowing him for less than 24 hours, followed up with his family to make sure he made it home, and became longtime friends.
He returned to Washington in 2016 as part of a New England Honor Flight trip, which brings aging veterans for a daylong tour of the war monuments. It was a highlight of his life, which his son Steve chronicled in a newspaper story – and he coveted and wore the “Honor Flight” hat and jacket since. The trip allowed him to visit, once again, Arlington National Cemetery, where his Korean War hero brother, the late U.S. Army Major Adolph Damish, is buried. His late sister, Aldona Damish, is buried with his parents, Lithuanian immigrants Magdalen Kalisinsky and Charles Damish, in Forest Hills cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
His service to the country helped him earn a degree in business administration from Boston University in 1956, which he attended through a GI Bill, and by driving a Boston taxi overnight. He was such a novice driver, he often had to ask passengers for directions. One of those passengers was hockey great Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens, in town to play the Bruins. Relying as usual on his fare to direct him, Richard only spoke French, and the two got lost, infuriating the future hockey Hall-of-Famer. The taxi driver chuckled, and still laughed when sharing the story years later.
The business degree -- but mostly his infectious, sincere personality and work ethic -- opened the doors at many businesses, and he worked a host of jobs. His first was as a buyer with Pratt and Whitney in Hartford, Conn. That was succeeded by several positions as a purchasing manager at companies including Northrop, LTX and Datel, all in Massachusetts.
“I worked so many different jobs because I promised I would never, ever move my family,” he once said. “And I never did.”
His own parents had moved to America to make his life possible, leaving their Lithuanian homeland due to the threat of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution. His mother came here, alone, in 1911, at age 15 -- and not knowing the language. She had to lie about her age, because those under 16 weren’t allowed to travel alone.
They both settled in Boston, where they eventually met, married and bought a modest home on Tampa Street in Mattapan, where he was born. His father built furniture, and his mother grew vegetables and raised chickens for food. As their youngest child, he was told not to name or grow attached to the chickens as he gathered their eggs – advice he ignored. As they sometimes disappeared, he began to understand why.
To stay warm in winter, his mother would heat bricks in the oven, wrap them in blankets and place them at the foot of his bed, since their upstairs had no heat.
He graduated from Hyde Park High in 1945, and met his future bride, one of the five Fellows sisters of West Roxbury, on May 1, 1955, at the legendary Blinstrub’s Village nightclub in South Boston. Both were attending a function hosted by Boston College Intown – which was BC’s night school at the time.
Over the next seven decades, there were vacations on the Cape and Frye Island, Maine; enough pets to fill a shelter; enough freebies and raffle prizes from road races to stock two stores; thousands of road race T-shirts, some of which are still worn by Brockton’s homeless after being donated years ago; bags of kids sports gear that could outfit several leagues; Sunday morning rides in the early ‘70s after delivering the Boston Sunday Globe to the football stadium (Schaefer) under construction in Foxboro; drive-ins at Wellfleet; the time he flew to Florida alone to surprise Steve and his family at Disney World; enough Ted Bruschi and Tom Brady shirts to cover a football field; his son Mike’s rock band creating cracks in the basement walls; a parade of birthday parties; a greenhouse at the Mass. Avenue home that lasted about five days due to Dan’s backyard ball games; endless streams of friends because he never locked the door; Diane’s first marathon with him (the Boston Peace Marathon in 1986); weekly trips to the Norwood Hospital emergency room for his active kids to be stitched; Steve’s winning 20-inch trout at the Walpole fishing derby in 1974; Robert’s funky-food New Year’s Eve parties; and Pat’s record-setting frog at the 1973 Walpole Village Fair frog-jump contest.
The event made Page 1 news in the Walpole Times that year.
And always, always, there were the ever-present and proud parents who were so loved by their children that most chose to stay close, either living right in town, or a short drive away.
There were also his many clubs, including the Walpole VFW Post 5188, Knights of Columbus, Italian American Club, Walpole Veterans, Norwood Men’s Club, North Shore Running Club, YMCA swimming programs; Walpole Council on Aging, Walpole Bowling League, and Council on Aging Senior Moments singing group.
He taught all of his kids how to jog, most how to play tennis, would wake at 5:30 a.m. to bring some to Saturday morning hockey at the old Gallo Arena on Route 1, and in his earlier years coached youth baseball. He started each game at Walpole’s Plimpton School field with the same chant:
“FUN! FUN! FUN!” he would yell.
“WIN! WIN! WIN!” the kids would always counter.
In later life, he was less mobile, but equally active, playing in the two bocce leagues, volunteering at the Norfolk County Retired Senior Volunteer Program, reading to kids at Walpole’s Fisher Elementary School, and providing a much-needed tenor in the COA’s “Senior Moments” group, where he savored his solo when he sang the “He sees you when you’re sleeping” chorus from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” He also helped support his wife as she fought to build Walpole’s new library, which ultimately passed by eight votes.
“That’s the library your mother made possible,” he always said when passing by.
During the pandemic, he often walked from his School Street condo across the street to read on a bench outside the closed library. Many waved and honked when they spotted Walpole Ed. Recently, a woman he didn’t know drove by, shouted hello, and returned a few minutes later with a dish of ice cream for him. She had spotted his Korean War Veteran hat, and wanted to thank him.
It’s one of the many stories he would frequently recount.
“That was wonderful,” he said, “and what life is all about. It’s about people, and people are so wonderful. So no matter where you’re going, what you’re doing, be sure to always stop, say hello, and be nice to people, because people are nice. They’re wonderful, and life is wonderful. Life is meant to be lived, every day. Life is not a race, after all, where there’s one winner. We’re all winners.”
Steve Damish can be reached at Steve.firstname.lastname@example.org
Visiting hours will be at the Delaney Funeral Home, 48 Common St., Walpole, from 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 5. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 6, at Blessed Sacrament Church in Walpole, followed by a collation at the Italian American Club, 109 Stone St., Walpole, to which all are invited. His burial will be private at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in his name may be made to Homes for Our Troops, 6 Main St., Taunton, MA, 02780, or Walpole High School Cross Country and Track Boosters, P.O. Box 174, Walpole, MA, 02081. Please note “Walpole Ed” on the memo line (https://runsignup.com/Race/MA/Walpole/WalpoleRoadRace).