Having never met, neither one knew what to expect, one arriving in Greenport by train, the other waiting at the station that June morning 18 years ago. But within minutes of meeting, they had become fast friends.
Now, although worlds apart, they have remained close for almost two decades.
In June 2000, Eleanor Oakley heard through the Shelter Island grapevine that families were needed to host runners competing in the Island’s 10K. Joseph Kibor, a Kenyan athlete on the international circuit of elite racers, had heard from his agent that there was a road race on a small Island somewhere in New York State that had fairly decent prize money. Someone there would put him up without charge.
“There was Mother Eleanor waiting,” Mr. Kibor told the Reporter via email from his home in Kitale, Kenya, describing his arrival in Greenport and using the honorific he gave her that first day.
“Joseph is really wonderful,” Ms. Oakley said, describing his immediate sense of warmth and gentle humor. From the time she shepherded Joseph and other visitors involved in the race onto the ferry to when it nudged into port, they were friends, completely at ease with each other.
After laying out a hefty lunch at her home on Gardiner’s Creek— “What an appetite!” — they had a tour of the Island, seeing the sites and meeting people.
“Everyone was so warm and welcoming,” Mr. Kibor remembered, adding that the beauty of the Island struck him deeply. It was a welcome relief after running in cities on the circuit. He and other runners went swimming and then returned to Ms. Oakley’s house for another long, leisurely meal and conversation.
He was 27 that summer and had come a long way from the time he competed as a 17-year-old in the Kenyan Commonwealth games. In that race he ran barefoot — he couldn’t afford running shoes — and came within a second of making the final trial for the 1,500 meters.
To get to his country’s games that year, he had sold one of the family’s goats to pay expenses. Dubbed “Goat Boy” by the local press, Mr. Kibor took the nickname as a badge of honor. “I had been running all my life,” he said. “And it was now a way to make a living.”
Ms. Oakley recalled Mr. Kibor’s talent as a raconteur, describing how he regaled the company at dinner with stories of peacekeeping duties in Somalia as a member of the Kenyan military. One story was about his first experience of being shot at. A devout Catholic, Mr. Kibor told his dinner companions that when bullets whizzed past his head, he shouted, “Jesus! Don’t you know it’s me, Joseph?”
The following day, in 95-degree heat and brutal humidity, Mr. Kibor finished first in the 1OK. The conditions made the race “like running in sand,” he remembered. He wasn’t running for glory, he said, but “to support my family.”
The day after the race, Ms. Oakley suggested her guest explore Gardiner’s Creek by kayak. But when it was time to catch the ferry, Mr. Kibor was nowhere to be seen. She had to shout out over the water that the train waited for no man, not even a 10K winner.
“It was my first time in a kayak,” Mr. Kibor remembered. “I didn’t want to ever stop.”
Just before he departed, off to compete in another race, Ms. Oakely gave him a piece of fabric she had bought in Guatemala to give to his mother, Elizabeth, whom Joseph had spoken about and her work helping needy children back home. He had said Ms. Oakley reminded him of her.
Since that time spent on the Island, the two friends have stayed in touch three or four times a year, including Christmas and Easter, via email and regular mail. Ms. Oakley has sent money — “Small amounts and no one ever asks me for anything” — to Elizabeth Kibor for her work with children. She has been honored by a sign over a door to a house in Kenya where Ms. Kibor does her work.
The friends have seen each other only once, when Ms. Oakley visited Kenya two years ago. They reunited at an “upscale mall in Nairobi,” Ms. Oakley said. “It was such a wow,” she added, describing how when Mr. Kibor spotted her he ran toward her.
Married with three children and still with the Kenyan military, Mr. Kibor said his last race was in London in 2008.
On Saturday, memories of his victory in the Island’s 1OK will come flooding back, but will be secondary to thoughts of Ms. Oakley’s hospitality and friendship.
“It has great meaning,” Ms. Oakley said, about their enduring friendship.