BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — The bad news is that for the first time in 33 years, Rich Donlon won’t be doing the Good Friday Walk next week.
The good news? He did it yesterday, a week early.
Donlon, a 73-year-old retired mailman from Beverly, realized recently that he was going to miss next week’s walk because he and his wife will be away on vacation.
When the conflict became apparent, Donlon uttered the phrase that sums up his devotion to the North Shore’s oldest charity walk.
“I could not not walk the Good Friday Walk,” he said.
That’s why Donlon showed up at 9 a.m. yesterday in the parking lot of St. John the Evangelist School, the walk’s traditional starting and ending spot in North Beverly. On walk day, the lot is bustling with the comings of goings of the 500 people who usually take part in the walk.
Yesterday, there was just Donlon. He had no umbrella, despite the threat of rain, and no snacks or water bottle, despite the fact that the usual water and snack stations along the route would not be open.
Then, as he has done for the last 33 years, he started walking, briskly. As he walked, he told the story of how the Good Friday Walk has come to mean so much to him.
Donlon missed the very first walk in 1979. He said he read about it in the newspaper and learned that it raised money to help local people in need pay their rent or heating bills.
“I said, ‘Gee, this is kind of neat,’” he said. “So I said, ‘Maybe next year I could do that.’
“Like anything, the first few years you don’t give anything a lot of thought. But, truly, our family has been very, very fortunate in terms of being that middle-class family that’s had it pretty good. And this is the way to myself I express that gratitude. A lot of folks out there, through no fault of their own, they’re just trying to feed their kids and be warm. And this helps.”
As a letter carrier for 27 years, Donlon was already accustomed to walking. At 73, he has stayed in shape by working out on a treadmill at the Beverly YMCA.
The 10.5-mile Good Friday Walk route is almost the same distance as his old mail route in North Beverly. One of his customers on the route was Ray Battistelli, the late founder of the Good Friday Walk.
“I loved my route,” Donlon said. “It was all walk, no driving. You get to know all the people. That’s what you miss.”
As Donlon made his way down Cabot Street past Balch Playground, a mailman driving a mail truck beeped and waved to him.
Donlon said one of his favorite years doing the walk came when his daughters, who were in first and third grade at the time, asked if they could do it with him. Donlon figured his girls would last for part of the walk before he’d have to call his wife, who helps out registering walkers back at St. John’s School, and have her pick them up. Instead, they walked the whole thing.
Donlon estimates that he has raised more than $30,000 over the years through pledges for the Good Friday Walk. One donor, who prefers to remain anonymous, gives $1,000 every year.
Alan Battistelli, Ray’s son and the president of the Good Friday Walk, said Donlon’s dedication is inspiring.
“He’s one of these guys who believes in what we’re doing,” Battistelli said. “He believes in the whole idea of helping our neighbors.”
Donlon finished his walk yesterday in a little over three hours, faster than usual because there were no other walkers to chat with. The route goes all the way down to Beverly Farms and back, but his only break came toward the end, when he stopped at Cityside Diner on Cabot Street.
“I said, ‘I think I deserve a muffin and a cup of coffee,’” he said.
Donlon described walking the entire route by himself as a “different” experience. He said he had time to reflect and notice things along the route he had never noticed before.
Most importantly, he kept his streak alive and continued to support the cause.
“It does mean a lot to me,” he said. “It does.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.
About the Good Friday Walk
The 35th annual Good Friday Walk will be held Friday, April 18. Donations can be sent to The Good Friday Walk, P.O. Box 646, Beverly, MA 01915, or online at goodfridaywalk.org.