James L. Fowler, who saw a marathon as a way to bridge the gap between civilians and the military following the divisive Vietnam War, died of heart failure on Tuesday. He was 84.
Fowler, a retired Marine colonel in the Reserve and veteran of the Korea and Vietnam wars, conceived what would become the celebrated Marine Corps Marathon in the mid-1970s, according to the event's official history. A marathon, he thought, could restore the military's image, serve as a recruiting tool for the Corps and give Marines a chance to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
"After the Vietnam War, popularity of the military services declined in the eyes of many. At the same time, distance running was gaining considerable positive attention," he said, according to the Mmarathon's account of its early years.
Fowler pitched the idea to Navy Cross recipient Maj. Gen. Michael Ryan in 1975, noting in a memo that marathons have military roots. The modern 26.2-mile race grew out of the legend of Pheidippides, an ancient Greek soldier who allegedly died after running from Marathon to Athens to announce a victory against the Persians.
"The name 'marathon' evokes military history and is the kind of event which the public finds in consonance with the image of the Marines," Fowler wrote to Ryan.
Ryan heartily agreed, according to the Marine Corps Marathon's account.
It has since grown into a Washington institution, becoming known around the world as "The People's Marathon." The scenic route takes runners from Arlington National Cemetery through Washington before returning to northern Virginia near the Marine Corps War Memorial. Event officials said 23,515 runners officially finished the marathon in 2012.
Fowler was very proud of its success, said his wife, Betsy Blackwell Fowler. And like a marathoner, he never stopped moving, she said.
He joined the Corps after high school, but ended up in Dartmouth College's ROTC program. After graduating and serving in Korea, he took a job with the CIA. That's where the couple met, Betsy Fowler said.
The two wed in 1961, shortly after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
Runners cross the start line of the Marine Corps Marathon. Retired Col. Jim Fowlers, one of the founders of the race, died on Tuesday at the age of 84.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Scott Schmidt/Marine Corps
When he wasn't attending school — earning various degrees from the University of Virginia, Columbia University and Georgetown University, among others — he embraced life. A passionate mountaineer, he also learned to fly, Betsy Fowler said.
But that ended abruptly after he took up skydiving.
"He was an avid skydiver; he just loved a challenge," she said. "He also had a private pilot's license, but after he started jumping out of planes, he lost interest in flying."
He asked to return to active duty with the outbreak of the Vietnam War, she Betsy Fowler said. Commanding the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, he was shot in the leg in November 1968, she said.
"He was always very proud of being a Marine," Betsy Fowler said. "He enjoyed being a Marine."
A gregarious man, he enjoyed many friends. His charisma was contagious, Betsy Fowler said.
"People were drawn to him. He was always upbeat," she recalled. "He always woke up in a good mood."