“He apparently clung to the earlier view of runners as undesirables, a near-criminal element,” Andrew Suozzo writes in his history “The Chicago Marathon.”
So those passionate about creating a marathon in Chicago turned to Lee Flaherty, whose Flair Communications did marketing work for the city.
“Flaherty was politically connected and was able to get Mayor Daley interested in the marathon,” Suozzo writes.
Then, Daley died, and Daley’s successor Michael Bilandic, himself a runner, was even more interested. He green-lighted the marathon, first held in 1977.
Flaherty, who championed the Chicago Marathon in its early years, even paying for it himself for the first two years, until it found a corporate sponsor, died March 23, a month after being diagnosed with cancer, at his home in Flair Tower, the building he helped develop on Erie Street. He was 90.
He was a pioneer in redeveloping River North, opening Flair Communications on Erie Street in 1964 when the area was downtrodden.
He also helped create, in 1984, the World’s Largest Block Party, an outdoor festival that encouraged young people to linger downtown after work in an era when you could shoot a cannon down State Street at 6 p.m. and not hit anybody. The street party also provided a lifeline to Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at a time parish membership had dwindled.
“When I came in 1983, Lee was a fixture at St. Pat’s,” the Rev. Jack Wall said. “When I became pastor and we started the block party, Lee really put his arms around it and helped us.”
Flaherty claimed the block party was his idea, just as he insisted he was the founder of the Chicago Marathon, though hosting the 26.2-mile race wasn’t a particularly innovative idea: Detroit, Duluth, Minn., and San Francisco all started marathons the same year as Chicago.
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