The birth of 'Boston Strong': How a father's message led to a historic slogan

Rob Bradford
January 02, 2014 - 12:55 am

It's been almost nine months since that tragic day. The sting of the bombings at the Boston Marathon still lingers. It's a feeling that won't go away, and surely will be brought even closer to the surface when the 2014 race is run.

What also hasn't gone anywhere is the unity and resolve that has been highlighted at every turn since that April 15 afternoon. The fundraising events. A World Series championship run. Healing. Hoping. Praying. And, all along the way, one slogan: "Boston Strong."

The two words fit perfectly from the outset. They unified a city while symbolizing its resolve.

Its significance is partly defined by its lasting shelf life, and also due to the attention it has garnered along the way. There have been cities and corporations attempting to spin slogans off of the saying. Two attempts at copyrighting the combination of words have been made. The Red Sox put it on their historic left field wall, on a uniform and in their outfield.

But where was "Boston Strong" born? Even after all this time, that hadn't truly been defined.

There had been an acceptance that a couple of Emerson students had coined the phrase first after the bombings. That night Nicholas Reynolds tweeted the hashtag after showing his buddy, Chris Dobens, later telling USA Today, "We developed Boston Strong off of Livestrong and Army Strong, because it was something simple people could get behind." The pair would go on to make up "Boston Strong" T-shirts, helping raise more than $1 million for the "The One Fund."

And there was the narrative that Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks got the slogan rolling when using "#Bostonstrong" in a tweet some time after the bombings. And certainly that post pushed the slogan to new heights, with the hashtag being used close to 500,000 times by the time the Red Sox returned home from Cleveland on April 20.

But in this day and age you can't hide from technology. It's what Curtis Clough discovered on the final day of 2013.

"I had no idea until you told me," said the 46-year-old superintendent of Strasburg-Franklin schools in Ohio, speaking by phone from his Cleveland-area home. "I remember putting 'Boston Strong' at the end of that tweet, but it is kind of shocking knowing I was the first one."

Clough was the first one.

According to Twitter, the married father of two college students was the first to use "#BostonStrong" after the Boston Marathon bombings. To be accurate, Clough's tweet read: "Thoughts and prayers to Boston marathon victims. Hoping for the best. #bostonstrong." (Click here to see the tweet.)

The notion that an Ohio native -- who hadn't visited Boston since 1976 and had only joined the social networking medium three years ago in an effort to better inform students about school postponements -- was the source of such a powerful entity might seem suboptimal at first. Yet, upon further review, Clough's presence was perfect.

This wasn't about a play on words. This wasn't a concoction born of another two-word slogan. This was about something a father told a son when describing what Boston was all about.

"My dad [Robert Clough] used to travel that territory for his old job when he was a truck and tractor trailer salesman. He had Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. So we would be up there probably once every other year since we would rotate between the New York and Boston area for family vacations," Clough said. 

"It was something my dad had always said along the way with his dealings with the Boston people and the salesmen. It was always Boston Strong this, and Boston Strong that. I remember that from my dad, and it just seemed to fit in that situation. That’s why I put the tweet out. My dad just used to tell me all the time. It just seemed like it fit."

Clough was first made aware of the tragedy upon getting an alert on his phone when returning home from a school meeting. He immediately joined his wife, Libby, in turning on the television to uncover more details. Shortly thereafter (at 2:38 p.m., according to the tweet) he echoed his dad via Twitter.

"I remember the feeling I had. It took me back to when I was younger the Oklahoma City bombings, the Atlanta bombings -- I had a friend who was about 30 yards away from where that bomb went off in Atlanta. Just the helpless feeling you have as a human being at that point and time," Clough said. "For me, in order for me to help deal with that situation, doing something in support of the Boston people is what I was trying to do. As an educator I always tried to make sure people are put first and that was my way of helping deal with the situation and just sending something out there to let them know they have the support from across the nation and not just the Boston area."

But after the tweet, life went on for Clough.

"Boston Strong" became an iconic slogan through various avenues, being used as a hashtag more than 1.5 million times (including 200,000 occasions the night the Red Sox won the World Series ... more than six months after its first appearance following the bombings).

"I just thought it was a takeoff on the Livestrong [Lance Armstrong's foundation]," Clough said. "But for me, this was my dad's thing. To me it was more family and personal more than anything else."

Clough isn't going to take ownership of the hashtag. The reality is Savannah Harbin (@VannahLayne) was the first person ever to use #BostonStrong in a tweet, having written "Proud citizen of @RedSox Nation! #BostonStrong" on July 16, 2011.

Clough isn't intent on jumping into the Boston sports scene, continuing his lifelong existence as a Cleveland sports fan. ("Can you give us [Bill] Belichick back?" he said.) Clough -- who has never been to Fenway Park -- can only relate to the Red Sox through his admiration of former Indians pitcher and current Sox manager John Farrell. (The superintendent has met Farrell "a couple of times" through Cleveland-area baseball clinics.)

Like so many others, "@TigerSuper44680" was just trying to help.

Using 83 characters, Clough did a pretty good job.