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.
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.
A gregarious man, he enjoyed many friends. His charisma was contagious, Betsy Fowler said.