Canton’s July 4th road race celebrates 50 years

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Joe DeFelice (far left) has started every July 4th road race since the race's inception in 1968.

Joe DeFelice (far left) has started every July 4th road race since the race’s inception in 1968.

In 1967-68, Joe DeFelice was a young member of the Planning Board and a local sportswriter. He met with then acting Recreation Commissioner Russ Kidd and the conversation between the two included the start of a slow-pitch Canton Men’s Softball League and a July 4th road race.

No other nearby communities had a local road race, and with the success of the CHS track teams in the Hockomock League, it seemed like a natural fit.

So DeFelice, with Kidd’s assistance, and with the financial backing of local companies and individuals, founded Canton’s first local race and it has been a staple of Canton’s Fourth of July festivities ever since.

DeFelice has been the official race starter every year, even in 1985 when he was the best man at friend and Attorney Glen Hannington’s wedding in Fall River and wore a tuxedo to the race. DeFelice started the race at 9:30 a.m. and then traveled to Fall River for a noon wedding.

The first July 4th road race started at the Osco Drug Parking Lot (Now Rite-Aid) and continued down Washington Street to Randolph Street, back to Washington Street and finished at CHS. The fun run for children was simple: Osco parking lot to CHS, a two-mile stretch.

About a decade ago, DeFelice decided to switch the course route so that it started and ended at the Canton Town Club, which offered its parking lot and inside restroom facilities. The race starts on Bailey Street, crosses Messenger Street to Walnut Street, and then heads up Washington Street, through Canton Center, to Washington and Pleasant streets, down Bolivar, and back to the Town Club on Bailey Street. The race has a police presence with motorcycle officers following runners and Canton firefighters and EMTs manning the race if runners need medical attention.

The first race in 1968 drew over 100 runners and 25 children. The busiest road race was in 1975, attracting more than 200 runners. Over the last five years the race has averaged 135 runners and 20-30 in the fun run.

The cost of the race in the early days including trophies was $1,000. The costs have since more than doubled — to an estimated $2,500 — with the Recreation Department covering race expenses and companies and individuals chipping in for the trophies.

Some companies and individuals have been constant for the 50 years of the road race, including the Canton Town Club, Bank of Canton, Canton Co-operative Bank, Padco, all members of the Board of Selectmen, state Rep. Bill Galvin, and attorneys Hannington and Dick Staiti. Recreation Commissioner Cab Devoll has offered volunteer help for 40 of the 50 years.

DeFelice’s expertise in running a road race was used in the early days of the Reebok Canton Road Race, but it has grown so large in size that now a professional company manages that race.

DeFelice loves the “local” nature of the Canton July 4th road race. He said it’s the one race where every member of the family can run or walk from the very young to people over 70 years old and “everyone gets applause or a cheer.”

A few special moments DeFelice remembers over the years include the following:

* In the early 1980s Richie Neckes of Canton was ready to win the race when he collapsed with 40 yards to go. The second place finisher (name unknown) helped Neckes across the finish line. DeFelice named both runners co-champions.

* Scott King, son of George King, the longtime CHS track coach, set the former course record, winning the five-mile race in under 25 minutes. The high temperature for the day was 55 degrees with a cold mist. It was also the day that DeFelice’s son, Joey, broke the fun run record.

* Scott Kilgallon remains the only runner who won the race in three decades (70s, 80s and 90s).

This year will mark the first time that the July 4th race will not use numbered tongue depressors or Popsicle sticks to track race data. Instead little electric chips will be handed to the runners, which will record the runner’s placement and finishing time.

While technology will aid the organization of the race on July 4, it’s the people, both young and old, that keep DeFelice coming back every year to start the race.

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