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John Thomas, 71; set world records in high jump, medaled in two Olympics

John Thomas won a silver medal at Tokyo. Valery Brumel of Russia won gold.
John Thomas won a silver medal at Tokyo. Valery Brumel of Russia won gold.Associated Press/file 1964

Fans may focus on the intense competition among high jumpers as they take turns clearing a bar that inches ever upward, but John Thomas knew he always faced only one true opponent.

“The bar is the thing that you have to beat,” he told the Globe in 1967. “That is also the thing that defeats you.”

He prevailed in his battles with the high jump bar often enough to repeatedly rewrite the record books, win two Olympic medals, and be inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.

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At 17, as a Boston University freshman competing at the Millrose Games in New York City, he became the first to clear 7 feet indoors. It was the first of several world records indoors and outdoors, and by the time he stopped competing in 1968, he had topped the historic height 191 times.

Mr. Thomas, who retired several years ago as athletic director of Roxbury Community College, died while undergoing vascular surgery Tuesday in Signature HealthCare Brockton Hospital, his family said. He was 71 and had lived in Brockton for more than 45 years.

On July 1, 1960, Mr. Thomas set a world record outdoors by clearing 7 feet, 3¾ inches during the Olympic trials in California. He had jumped 7 feet, 2½ inches just moments earlier, and “the crowd of 41,000 let out a mighty roar both times,” the Associated Press reported.

For all his successes, he also tasted disappointment in his two highest-profile meets.

A favorite to win the high jump in consecutive Olympic Games, he finished with the bronze medal in Rome in 1960 and the silver medal in 1964 in Tokyo. In the latter, Mr. Thomas cleared the winning height, but Valery Brumel, a Soviet athlete who became a good friend, won the gold medal because he had missed fewer jumps.

The bronze medal in Rome was more difficult to endure because Mr. Thomas entered the Olympics as a 19-year-old who held the world record. Years later, he said the experience provided valuable life lessons.

“I gained a lot by not finishing first,” Mr. Thomas told the Globe. “If I’d won, I never would have learned as much about people as I did.”

In 1999, the Globe named Mr. Thomas to the list of the top New England athletes of the 20th century. According to his National Track & Field Hall of Fame biography, he “won two national collegiate titles and seven National AAU titles, two outdoors and five outdoors.”

Joann E. Flaminio, the Boston Athletic Association’s president, said Mr. Thomas “transcended what it meant to be a champion and an Olympian.”

“As the first African-American member of the BAA, he made a profound, positive impact,” Flaminio said. “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.”

Though his fame in 1960 was such that reporters chronicled nearly every moment he spent at the Olympics, Mr. Thomas “was a very humble man,” said his daughter Nikol of Woonsocket, R.I. “You didn’t know who he was unless somebody told you who he was.”

In his last days, she said, Mr. Thomas spoke by phone with former Olympic teammates, laughing as they shared memories of their days in Rome.

“It was just beautiful, and I’m so happy he was able to go down memory lane with so many of his friends,” she said.

Born in Boston, John Curtis Thomas grew up in Cambridge, the oldest of three children. His father, Curtis, worked for what is now the MBTA. His mother, the former Ida Shanks, was a kitchen employee at Harvard.

Mr. Thomas graduated from Rindge Technical High School in the years before it merged to become Cambridge Rindge and Latin. He graduated from Boston University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree. In addition to high jumping, Mr. Thomas was a good high hurdler and competed in other events.

At BU, he injured his ankle in an elevator mishap that threatened to derail his track career, before he came back to compete in the 1960 games.

During the next several years, Mr. Thomas finished college and juggled jobs as he trained for the 1964 Olympics and other meets until retiring from competition in 1968.

He worked as a coach and as an account executive for AT&T and owned a hair salon before working at Roxbury Community College in several capacities.

Mr. Thomas formerly was married to Delores Souza.

An Eagle Scout, he volunteered with the Boy Scouts of America and for the boards of several other organizations.

“My dad is truly a legend,” his daughter Nikol said. “He had two families. He had us, his children, and he had the Olympians. We are who we are because of who he was.”

Thomas S. Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, said that whenever he hears the name John Thomas, “the height 7 feet 3¾ inches always comes to mind as the then stunning world record.

“He was on TV in the Olympics, and he competed against the Russians on ‘Wide World of Sports,’ ” Grilk said. “To us in that day, his name meant ‘excellence’ on the world stage, and it felt personal to us.”

In addition to his daughter Nikol, Mr. Thomas leaves two sons, John Jr. of Wareham and Danye of Brockton; two other daughters, Stephanie Finley of Medford and Eva of Sweden; 16 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

A going-home ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Temple Adventiste Church in Brockton.

In a 1984 interview with United Press International, Mr. Thomas recalled that when he cleared 7 feet indoors at the Millrose Games, “the place went absolutely crazy.”

“I was 17 years old, just a half year out of high school,” he said. “You can imagine the feeling I had in my stomach.”

“When I jumped 7 feet, I honestly thought that would be the highlight of my career. I never imagined things would happen the way they did.”

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