It was 2010 and she was dying. Ovarian cancer had won.
In hospice, surrounded by her sons, Judy Hoyt turned to her youngest, Russell, and said “please get your father”.
Dick Hoyt, by then her ex-husband of 18 years, entered the room. From her bed, Judy reached out and took Dick’s hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You know I always loved you.”
With tears in his eyes, Dick replied “You are the only true love of my life.”
The Power Couple
Judith Leighton was born in Portland, Maine, exactly two months before V-E Day. Her family later moved to North Reading, where she attended high school.
Richard “Dick” Hoyt was born in North Reading, the fifth of 10 children, squeezed into a two bedroom house. Dick and Judy were high school sweethearts, he the captain of the football team, she the captain of the cheerleading team. The two were inseparable; A quote in their yearbook reads “Richie and Judy are like coffee and tea, one without the other you rarely will see.”
It was easy to see that the two combined were greater than the sum of their parts.
The couple married out of high school, and within a year were expecting their first child. Richard “Rick” Hoyt, Jr., was born in 1962. During labor, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, depriving his brain of oxygen. He was diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy.
The doctors advised Dick and Judy to institutionalize Rick because he was never going to be anything other than “a vegetable.”
The couple was dumbfounded by the doctor’s advice, and they refused to accept it. “After we cried a bit, we agreed that we were going to bring Rick up like every other kid,” said Dick in an interview with HBO’s Real Sports.
While Judy stayed home to care for Rick, Dick joined the Army National Guard, and later transferred to the Air National Guard, where he would spend the next 30 years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. Sons Robert and Russell were born in 1964 and 1967.
Rick was included in everything. When Rick’s brothers played hockey in the neighborhood, he joined in. Dick Hoyt recounted, “We took him out on the ice in his wheelchair and we’d push him around. We put a hockey stick on his wheelchair too and we skated with him, so he could join in the game and not be stuck being the goalie all the time.” The other children in the neighborhood would often include Rick in their activities, “They treated him like everyone else because they saw him the same as we did.”
The family regularly climbed Mount Monadnock, with Rick carried on Dick’s broad shoulders. The camped and swam like regular kids. They never let Rick’s disability stop them.
While much has been written on Dick and Rick’s legendary accomplishments – and we will cover them in subsequent stories – the powerhouse of the relationship was Judy.
“My mother was Rick’s first caretaker and our family’s support system,” said Russ. “But her real legacy, which is less known, is the work she did for every disabled person in the United States.”
Public schools fail Rick
Rick is confined to a life in a wheelchair, unable to move his limbs or speak. He cannot dress or feed himself. Doctors repeatedly told Judy and Dick that Rick did not have the cognitive abilities of a typical child, an opinion they refused to believe.
“When Rick got his eyes opened, they were following mine and my wife’s,” said Dick Hoyt. “He was looking at us. His eyes were unbelievable. If you talked or made noises, he reacted. He paid attention.”
They knew he was intelligent, he just didn’t have a way to communicate. “The first time I got a doctor to believe me is when I asked him to tell Rick a joke,” said Judy in an early interview. “Rick’s eyes lit up at the punch line and he started laughing and the doctor was convinced.”
Although she had yet to obtain her Masters in Education from UMass, Judy was an innate and creative teacher. Determined to find a way to help her son communicate, she gathered a collection of letter blocks and glued sandpaper to them, rubbing them on Rick’s body to teach him the alphabet through sensory.
When it was time for Rick to enter Kindergarten, Judy enrolled him in North Reading elementary. The kindergarten classroom was on the first floor of the schoolhouse, and the school was able to accommodate his wheelchair.
“I think people were thinking ‘OK, it’s kindergarten, there’s not a lot of academic pressure’,” said Russ.
But the first grade classroom was up a flight of stairs, and the next year the school told Judy that Rick would need to go to a special school. Furious, Judy met with the Superintendent. “This isn’t right,” she protested. “My son is intelligent and can participate.” The only option they offered the Hoyt’s was a school where other students had physical but also cognitive disabilities, without the ability to understand or comprehend on the same level as Rick. Judy fought the decision but the school was intransigent. A short time later, Dick was transferred from Natick to the Barnes Air National Guard base in Westfield, Massachusetts, and the family relocated.
A breakthrough at Tufts enables Rick to communicate
In the early 1970s, the Hoyts asked a group of young engineers at Tufts University if they could build a machine that would help Rick communicate. At first, the engineers thought it would be a waste of time because they assumed that he could not understand people. They told the family that for $5,000 (about $35,000 today) they could build it. The money was raised, and in 1974 Rick got his computer. It was controlled by his head movements, allowing him to type by scrolling through rows of letters.
The excited family gathered around him, placing bets on what his first words would be. Judy was certain they would be “Hi Mom” and Dick was predicting “Hi Dad”. The brothers each thought it would be one of them. But the Bruins were in the Stanley Cup that year, and Rick was a big sports fan. “Go Bruins!” were his first words.
Prior to the computer, Rick and his family had developed a system they called the “spell” method. They would take the alphabet and break it down by vowels, with Rick shaking his head yes or no to each letter. The method took time, but it worked. “It was a lot like 20 Questions,” said Russ.
At age 12, and armed with his new computer, Judy was determined to place Rick in a public school. She went to the Westfield school board and convinced them to allow Rick to enroll, which they agreed to do provisionally, for one year. Judy knew this would be a challenge every year, and she decided to take action.
Local, State and Federal Influence
Working with local politicians, and taking meetings with anyone that would listen, Judy worked tirelessly to help draft the legislation known as Chapter 766, or the Massachusetts Special Education Law. Passed in 1972, Chapter 766 helped bring thousands of young people into more inclusive educational settings. It guaranteed all students age 3-22 access to an educational program best suited to their needs, regardless of disability.
The momentum continued, and Chapter 766 served as the model for the first federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975. Judy worked with 16-term Congressman Silvio Conte to help push the bill, and its successor, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, through congress. Recent research from the CDC shows that one in 6, or about 17% of all children born in the US have one or more developmental disabilities. It is difficult to overstate Judy’s impact on each and every one of those children.
Never one to rest, in 1979 Judy founded the Association for Support of Human Services (ASHS) and Kamp for Kids, the first summer camp to offer children and young adults – both with and without disabilities – an opportunity to experience growth, inclusion and fun in a summer camp setting. Hosted at Camp Togowauk in Westfield, the nonprofit operates today as a part of BHN, and has hosted more than 6,000 children to date.
Team Hoyt began in 1975 when Rick asked his father if they could run in a race together to benefit a lacrosse player at a local college who had become paralyzed. He wanted to prove that life went on no matter your disability. Dick was 36, and by his own admission out of shape. Adding to the complexity, at the time there were no wheelchairs designed to be pushed by a runner. Nonetheless, Dick began to train each day, often using a 60 pound bag of cement in place of Rick, who could not join him due to his studies. After their first race Rick said, “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.”
Team Hoyt went on to achieve worldwide acclaim. This video from Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel captures the incredible history and spirit of Team Hoyt.
Divorce and Legacy
By 1993, the pressure of Dick and Rick’s grueling marathon schedule – and the long hours of training that accompanied it – ended Judy and Dick’s marriage. Dick became Rick’s full time caregiver, while Judy continued to support families as an educational and parent advocate. Neither remarried, and both continuing to busy themselves in the service of others.
Judy succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2010 and Dick to heart problems in 2021. Rick is now 61 and lives independently in Rochdale, MA, with the help of nursing support. Although he has retired from marathoning, he remains active, running shorter races with his nephews and speaking at schools with his brother Russ, as well as leading the efforts of the Hoyt Foundation.
While Rick and Dick inspired the world by their incredible endurance and partnership, Judy’s quiet legislative achievements ensured that all children in the US have the opportunity to receive a proper education no matter their circumstances.
Their memory lives on in the Hoyt Foundation, which they formed in 1989. Each year the foundation provides “Yes You Can” grants from $5,000 to $25,000 to help children be included alongside their non-disabled peers. To fund these grants, the foundation hosts the Dick Hoyt Memorial Run in Hopkinton each May, and they invite everyone to participate.