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Obituary: John Thomas of Brockton, two-time Olympian, dies

Obituary: John Thomas of Brockton, two-time Olympian, dies
John Thomas after winning the bronze at the 1960 Olympics.

John Thomas, a legendary figure in track and field and two-time Olympic medal winner, died last week at Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital. He was 71.

Thomas won a bronze medal in the high jump in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and a silver medal at the 1964 games in Tokyo. He was the first man to clear 7 feet indoors and made 13 world-record jumps.

He was also a trustee at Brockton Public Library and a volunteer at the library and the YMCA.

He was athletic director at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury, where he was known as “JT.”

Thomas was a 17-year-old freshman at Boston University when he became the first athlete to break the 7-foot barrier indoors on Jan. 31, 1959, at the Millrose Games in New York. He eventually eclipsed the world indoor record with a leap of 7 feet 1 ¼ inches at the 1959 National AAU Championships.

He broke the world outdoor record three times in 1960, including a career-best jump of 7 feet, 3 ½ inches.

Thomas was the NCAA high jump champion in each of his four years at Boston University and captured seven national AAU titles. In his career, he cleared seven feet 191 times and lost only eight competitions.

“John meant a lot to me and to BU,” the school’s director of track and field and cross country Robyne Johnson said in a statement. “In the eight years I’ve been here, I found him to be a sincere and nice man. He was a tremendous athlete and he meant a lot to both track and field and to the BU community. He will be missed and we have heavy hearts at the Track and Tennis Center. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

Thomas graduated from Boston University in 1963 and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1968. He was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1985 and also named to the Helms Athletic Foundation Hall of Fame.

“John Thomas transcended what it meant to be a champion and an Olympian, and he achieved legendary status not only within the Boston Athletic Association but also in Boston sports,” said Joann E. Flaminio, B.A.A. President. “As the first African American member of the B.A.A., he made a profound, positive impact on us. He was a gentleman who we greatly respected, and he displayed the very best that sports can offer through his successes and how he represented himself and others. John was an inspiration to all…”

B.A.A. Executive Director Thomas S. Grilk was equally saddened.

“For those of us growing up in Greater Boston in the 1950s and 1960s, John Thomas in the high jump was our personal connection to national, international and Olympic track and field,” Grilk said. “He was on TV in the Olympics, and he competed against the Russians on Wide World of Sports. To us in that day, his name meant ‘excellence’ on the world stage, and it felt personal to us. His was the name we looked for in every track meet and two Olympics.”

Material from published articles contributed to this report.