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The Boston Marathon’s Italian roots

By Paul Camilio Clerici

Runners approach the colorful finish line of the 104th Boston Marathon in 2000. Photo by Frank Clerici Sr.

Runners approach the colorful finish line of the 104th Boston Marathon in 2000. Photo by Frank Clerici Sr.

While the turn-of-the-century roots of Boston Marathon history are predominantly Irish via the organizing 129-year-old Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), there is an impressive Italian presence.

Lawrence Brignolia, an Italian-American blacksmith from Cambridge, Mass., won the third race in 1899; and Gelindo Bordin of Vicenza, Italy, won the 94th Boston in 1990.

Italian Americans can also be found in several key administrative positions. Joann Flaminio in 2011 was named as the 23rd Board of Governors president (the first woman and first person of Italian descent to hold this post).

“I could not be more Italian!” she boasts. “Both sets of my grandparents were from Italy and immigrated to this country in the early 1900s. My mother’s family is from Bari on the Adriatic, while my father’s family is from Foggia, which is still south but a bit more centrally located. All Puglia!” She also notes her good taste for wines from the Flaminio Estates at the Agricole Vallone Winery in Lecce.

One of Flaminio’s roles is to represent the B.A.A. at events around the world. A recent highlight was the 2015 Marabana Marathon in Cuba.

“I continue to be astounded that wherever I go, it is always the same — people may be speaking different languages and come from different cultures and ideologies, but we all share a love of our sport; and once we lace up our running shoes, we are able to transcend all of our differences and simply get out on the road and head for the finish line,” she marvels.

Flaminio’s tenure — which will include celebrations of women in the Boston Marathon, whose history began in 1966 when Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb became the first woman to complete the race — has also included one of the darkest periods in its history.

“I am very proud of all that we do at the B.A.A.,” Flaminio says, “but I’m particularly proud of our response as an organization to the bombings in 2013. Our organization was strong throughout the days following the incident, and has been dedicated ever since to helping those affected.”

Holding the Boston Marathon finish-line tape for Margaret Okayo's then-record-setting victory in 2002 is Boston Athletic Association president Joann Flaminio, left, and vice president Gloria (Graceffa) Ratti, right. Photo by Victor Sailer/www.photorun.net

Holding the Boston Marathon finish-line tape for Margaret Okayo’s then-record-setting victory in 2002 is Boston Athletic Association president Joann Flaminio, left, and vice president Gloria (Graceffa) Ratti, right. Photo by Victor Sailer/www.photorun.net

Gloria (Graceffa) Ratti — of Sicilian parents from Agrigento (mother) and Syracuse (father) — is the longtime keeper of B.A.A. history, secretary, and the first woman vice president.

“I have always had a strong sense of history; and being a citizen of Boston was a great deal of pride for me,” she says. “I was able to visit the museums, library, and theaters, which were only a stone’s throw away from South Boston where I grew up as a child. Through my Italian ancestry I learned to appreciate the arts and theater, especially opera.”

Ratti’s involvement in the sport began via her late husband, Charles, “primarily to spend time with my husband at events during the weekend and the need for volunteers at running events which were growing by leaps and bounds in the 1970s. I knew the Boston Marathon was an important event in Boston’s history, and once I became involved I resolved to devote my time and efforts to the Boston Athletic Association.”

Among others with Italian lineage is the B.A.A.’s first female CFO/treasurer, Gina Caruso.

“My roots are purely southern Italian,” she notes. “My first trip to Italy was at age 5 to meet my maternal grandparents in Calabria and to see the sights of Rome. That trip sparked my love for all things Italian.”

Before Caruso returned to the B.A.A. in 2010, she was special events manager from 1995-1997, which included the centennial race, a personal highlight.

“Being a steward of this marvelous Boston tradition is an honor,” notes Caruso, born at Newton-Wellesley Hospital near Mile 17. “I grew up watching the Boston Marathon near the Newton firehouse, so for me now being able to watch the runners cross the finish line is like watching dreams become reality.”

An American flag proudly waves on a closed-off Boylston Street shortly after the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. Photo by Paul Camilio Clerici

An American flag proudly waves on a closed-off Boylston Street shortly after the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. Photo by Paul Camilio Clerici

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