SOUTHBRIDGE – Runners and volunteers will gather at the Tri-Community YMCA headquarters on Everett Street Wednesday to kick off a long-standing Fourth of July tradition, the Leonide J. Lemire Road Race.
The race began in Southbridge in 1950 and it has run every year since then, always on Independence Day. The popular event is hailed as “one of the longest-running road races in America.” It is either the second or third oldest continuous race that is, depending on who you talk to.
The race starts at the YMCA headquarters at 43 Everett Street and will go 4.9 miles through town, reaching as far west as the top of West Street, heading onto South Street and returning to the start point. Registration is available in person at the Tri-Community YMCA headquarters; no online registration is available for the event this year. Registration costs $8 before July 4 or $10 the morning of July 4. Family registration costs $25. Military personnel and those over the age of 68 run free.
Pre-race activities kick off 8:00 a.m. at the YMCA headquarters. The race itself begins at 10:00 a.m. As a special addition to the ceremonies this year, everyone present will be encouraged to join in singing The Star Spangled Banner before runners take off.
Local resident Maura Power stepped in this year as race director after Dale Ames retired from the position last year. Ames had served as race director of the Leonide J. Lemire Road Race for decades before stepping down. V.F.W. Post 6055 and the Tri-Community YMCA had been looking for a replacement as early as last year’s race, but it was only in the last few months that Power learned of the opening.
She quickly stepped in to help the race continue its historic run. She credits a good in-place system and the support of local businesses and community organizations for pulling it off in such a short time.
“There has been a lot of community support in helping the race continue. This is a historical race and one of the oldest continually run races in the United States,” remarks Power.
This longstanding community event in Southbridge is associated in many ways with a sense of patriotism, beyond its Fourth of July schedule and this year’s singing of the national anthem.
The race was named in honor of Leonide J. Lemire, the first Southbridge resident to die in service during World War II. Lemire grew up on Charlton Street before he joined the Navy and served as a Seaman First Class on the U.S.S. West Virginia. He died on the ship, which was anchored at Pearl Harbor on the day of the infamous attack that brought the U.S. into World War II. He was twenty-four years old at the time. His remains are now buried at The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii under his full given name, Joseph Samuel L. Lemire.
Southbridge’s V.F.W. Post (6055) was named in 1946 in honor of Lemire. Four years after that, the annual tradition of the Leonide J. Lemire Road Race began as a V.F.W. event. The post’s headquarters on Everett Street served as the race’s starting point for most of its existence.
Although the V.F.W. group is still very much active and contributing to the Southbridge community, they sold their building in recent years. It was the sale of this building that prompted a partnership with the Tri-Community YMCA, their neighbors on Everett Street. The partnership would keep the race going by moving its starting point just up the road.
Although there have been rapid changes in recent years including the sale of the V.F.W. building and the search for new race leadership, the race continues to draw a crowd and to see high levels of participation.
Several people have said that they are interested in verifying whether Southbridge’s Fourth of July road race is the second or third oldest continuously held race in the United States. It is not likely, however, that the race is going to lose its continuity; there are just too many groups, businesses and individuals in Southbridge willing to lend a hand to keep it going.