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Track and Field Icon John Thomas Dies at 71

Set world high-jump record as BU freshman

John Thomas, Knights of Columbus Varsity Games at Boston Garden 1959, Boston University track and field, world record high jump 1960

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 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.”

John Thomas, Boston University BU Terriers track and field vs Tufts University 1959

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. Services will be held in his memory at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 22, at Temple Adventiste, 237 Court St., Brockton.

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

11 Comments
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

11 Comments on Track and Field Icon John Thomas Dies at 71

  • Tony on 01.22.2013 at 9:19 am

    As a sprinter I never thought about high jumping until I saw the great John Thomas in a book when I was in the 10th grade. What a person, he’ll be missed.

  • Gregg Cantor on 01.22.2013 at 10:50 am

    In 1968 John walked up to me in the gym on Babcocck Street at Boston University and asked me if I wanted to learn to high jump. I was 5’10″ tall and only touched a basketball rim once in my life!
    I think its remarkable that he could reach out to one of the most hopeless jumpers in all of Boston and ask if he could teach them to high jump!
    I believe he was a great man.
    Gregg Cantor
    Naples, Florida

    • nikol thomas on 09.03.2013 at 7:41 pm

      Thank You all..GOD BLESS YOU..

  • Armsted Christian on 01.25.2013 at 7:35 pm

    When I was a high school student, I was involved with track and field events and high jumped. John Thomas was the one who I emulated. His style was fluid and effective..the Western Roll” was his approach, as it was with many high jumpers in the US and internationally. It is unfortunate that his family,America and the world had to say goodbye to a great athelete and humanitarian. God rest his spirit.

  • R Young on 02.18.2013 at 10:26 am

    An outstanding, humble track and field star has passed. He was loved by all…he befriended all…he will be missed.
    May God bless you John, you will NEVER be forgotten.

  • John L.A.Wilson SMG '81 on 02.21.2013 at 7:52 pm

    Such sad news. “JT” was an assistant coach at BU when I was on the track team in the late seventies/early eighties. David Hemery, the BU-alumnus head coach and Mexico 400M hurdles gold medallist and world record-holder, had recruited me and some fellow Brits to join the team, and JT was ever-present, supportive, good-humored and always made us “foreigners” feel so welcome. Beyond his legendary status in the world of track and field JT was such a nice and humble gentleman and was always an inspiration to us young athletes on the BU track team. Thanks JT!

  • Bryan Best on 05.12.2013 at 1:44 am

    I will miss John. I officiated with him at The Glenn Loucks track meet in White Plains, NY.

  • Ralph Wadlinger on 05.25.2013 at 3:19 pm

    Ran against John in the finals of the high hurdles at the 1958 Greater Boston Invitational. While we were warming up John was setting the high school world record in the high jump. Running the length of the field to join our finals he took a casual step over one hurdle as a warm up. Won the event easily. He could have been a great decatholete.

  • Felton Rogers on 06.18.2013 at 12:32 am

    So sad to hear that John is gone. I jumped against him in the Chicago Daliy News Relays while I was at University of Iowa. I tied for second behind him. He, I and a couple of others went to a party and out to breakfast after the meet. What a great down to earth guy. He held the indoor record at that time. This was in the early 1960′s.

  • Bob Gilvey on 10.24.2013 at 8:45 pm

    A sweet person, who did almost as much as Bill Russell to fix the racial mess in Boston. A fellow jock. I at BC.
    He was my friend. His coach at BU, Billy Smith, was also my friend. Bless these people.

  • Leishangthem Ajit singh. on 04.18.2014 at 10:34 am

    Very sad to learn that John Thomas, the legendary high jumper is no more. He had never visited India, however, we have seen his jumping actions in a number of films like , Tokyo Olympic, directed by Kon Ichikawa. His everlasting freindship with his arch rival Velery Brumel of the erstwhile U.S.S.R. is a symbol of Olympism that we inspire.

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