Centenarian Swims Into the Record Books

At nearly 100 years old, Marie Kelleher knows how to make a splash. This spring, the soon-to-be centenarian established new U.S. Masters Swimming national records in her age group. When she was at Mary Washington in the 1930s, she swam in the state-of-the-art Lee Hall pool, built in 1927. Photo by Dave Holland.

When Marie Krafft Kelleher ’35 attended Fredericksburg Teachers College, now the University of Mary Washington, students had to learn how to swim before they could graduate. That wasn’t a problem for Kelleher, who grew up in Alexandria, Va., spending lazy Sundays at nearby beaches and summer afternoons at the city pool.

With nearly a century behind her − her 100th birthday is Dec. 21 − Kelleher is a record-setting swimmer who claimed two national titles this spring. She rises before dawn several mornings a week to squeeze in some laps before heading to work as board chairwoman and corporate secretary of the company she started with her late husband, Mike Kelleher.

When she was in college, the Lee Hall pool, immaculately modern when it was built in 1927 with its fancy filtration system and tile-lined walls, became a harbor for Kelleher. But when she climbed into the passenger seat of her father’s car in 1931 to first see the campus, she wasn’t sure where she was headed.

The 19-year-old soon found herself face to face with Nina G. Bushnell, dean of women. Kelleher would spend much of the next four years trying to please the famously strict dean, who demanded appropriate attire, pristine manners, and punctuality. But that Friday, Kelleher wasn’t fazed, and Bushnell allowed her to start classes the following Monday.

“She was a good person,” Kelleher said of Bushnell. “She was perfect for the job. She was strict, but that’s what you needed with a bunch of girls. She had to lay down the law and demand we keep to it.”

When Kelleher wasn’t in the water, she spent time in her Willard Hall room, where a picture of her then-beau caused quite a stir.

“Everybody came to see it. He was a handsome man,” she said of her husband of 67 years. Together they raised their late daughter, Marie Kelleher ’63, and sons Joe, Pat, Ed, and Frank.

Kelleher put the relationship on hold, though, while she was in school, focusing instead on her studies. And she soon learned a valuable lesson.

“I had some good professors and I loved them,” she said. “But the more I did the teacher thing, the more I realized I wasn’t cut out for it.”

Still, her college experience and skills led to jobs with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the American Cancer Society, and Easter Seals. She found her real niche in 1968 when she began balancing the books for Kelleher Oil Heat, which she and Mike started.

Today, 10 years after his death, the company has more than 30 employees, including two of the Kellehers’ sons, and it also specializes in air conditioning, electrical, and plumbing services.

It was later in life, too, that Kelleher, a Virginia Senior Games competitor, hit her stride in the pool. She began to compete in her 60s and became a record-setter even later. In May, she established new U.S. Masters Swimming national records in the 100-to-104 age group in the 50 free and 100 free events.

She swims to stay fit, she said, not for titles. “Records are meant to be broken. If somebody swims better than I do, more power to them. I love it!”