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Track and Field Icon John Thomas Dies at 71

Set world high-jump record as BU freshman

| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson

Boston University varsity high jumper John Thomas competes at the Knights of Columbus Varsity Games at Boston Garden, 1959. Photos by BU Photography

Inspiring “the loudest roar” he ever heard at New York’s Madison Square Garden, it was recalled by the director of the Millrose Games as the most memorable event in the history of the indoor high jump. It was January 31, 1959, and Boston University freshman John Thomas had just set a world record with a seven-foot jump in the major track and field event.

Two-time Olympic medalist Thomas (SED’63) died on January 15, at the age of 71, while undergoing surgery at a Brockton, Mass., hospital.

“John meant a lot to me and to BU,” track and field and cross-country director Robyne Johnson says of Thomas, who in 1960 set the world outdoor high jump record by jumping 7 feet, 3¾ inches, at an Olympic trial in California. He went on to break the world outdoor record twice more, was the NCAA high jump champion during each of his four years with the Terriers, and captured seven AAU titles. Inducted into the BU Hall of Fame in 1968 and the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1985, Thomas cleared seven feet 191 times and lost only eight competitions. He won a bronze medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and a silver at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. In 1999 the Boston Globe named Thomas one of the top New England athletes of the 20th century.

Thomas, a former coach, businessman, and retired athletic director of Roxbury Community College, “was a tremendous athlete and he will be missed,” Johnson says. “We have heavy hearts at the Track & Tennis Center. I found him to be a sincere and nice man.” Thomas was a passionate Terrier all his life and a regular at BU’s annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

A Brockton resident for more than 45 years, he grew up in Cambridge and graduated from Rindge Technical High School, now Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. A serious injury—his foot was crushed in an elevator accident—threatened to sideline him early in his BU career, but he rebounded to compete in the 1960 Olympics. Described by his daughter Nikol Thomas in the Boston Globe as “a very humble man,” Thomas’ historic jumps had reporters waxing poetic, comparing him to a Balanchine dancer or a plane in flight. In a tribute on his blog titled “Passing of a Hero,” running broadcaster Toni Reavis recalls the young Thomas in mid-jump as “surging upward in a series of elongated body parts: the bold straight lead leg, the thrusting right arm. He would rise like a great airship rises from the tarmac…up, up, up he powered, seven feet plus in all until, cresting the bar, he would hold in a moment of suspended animation.”

Thomas in action during a meet at Tufts University, 1959.

“I always loved being up there,” Thomas said in an interview after losing the 1960 Olympic gold to longtime rival Valeriy Brumel of the Soviet Union. “There was a feeling you’d get up there, if you did it right…I have a silver and a bronze. And I have that feeling, you know? I am not sure a gold and a bronze would have made it any better.” The rivalry between Thomas and Brumel, which drew extensive press attention at the peak of the Cold War, eventually mellowed into a long friendship. Years after his Olympic disappointments, Thomas told the Globe, “I gained a lot by not finishing first. If I’d won, I never would have learned as much about people as I did.”

Before working at Roxbury Community College, Thomas was an account executive for AT&T and the owner of a hair salon. An Eagle Scout, Thomas was for many years on the Cambridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Active in community service, he served on many boards, most recently that of the Brockton Public Library. He was president of New England Olympians, and in 2009 Cambridge Rindge and Latin School named him its Man of the Year.

Thomas is survived by two sons, three daughters, 16 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.

In the video above, watch a news clip of John Thomas setting a world record in the high jump at Madison Square Garden in 1959. Video courtesy of Armory Track

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