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Official Fondly Remembered

A day after a shotput accident killed Paul Suzuki, many speak of his dedication to sport.

June 24, 2005|Lonnie White and Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writers

Paul Suzuki was expected to attend a luncheon Thursday where he and others were to be honored for their contributions to high school athletics.

About the same time, Pat Whalen would have been finishing up in the junior men's shotput competition at the U.S. track and field championships at the Home Depot Center.

Neither made it to his destination.

Suzuki, 77, who worked as an official at local cross-country and track and field competitions for decades, died Wednesday when he was struck in the head by a 16-pound shot during an afternoon practice session.

It was thrown by Whalen, 19, who was apparently unaware that Suzuki -- who witnesses said had turned his head away to talk to another official -- was within his throwing range.

"It sounded like a pole vaulter having his pole snapped," said an athlete who was nearby when it happened.

"It sounded like a big gun shot," said another.

Luke Johnson, a Texas San Antonio freshman, said Suzuki was on the left side of the shotput ring and estimated that he was "close to 50 feet" from the throwing circle.

"He was walking over to talk to the other [official] when it happened," Johnson said. "It was tragic."

Bob Marcus, chairman of officials for the Southern California Assn. of USA Track and Field, said he thought that Suzuki went on his own to work in the shotput area. In track and field, pre-meet practices are informal for athletes and officials.

"It's just an unfortunate thing that could have happened to anybody," Marcus said. "You just have to be aware in track and field. That's just the way it is."

Whalen, who recently completed his freshman year at Ohio State, could not be reached for comment. School sources said he returned to his family's home in West Dundee, Ill. on Thursday.

Whalen was a scholastic All-American in 2004, a year in which he was the Illinois high school champion in the shotput and fourth among the state's discus throwers.

Ohio State coaches and athletes were instructed not to talk about the incident, but a teammate said Whalen "was pretty shook up over it."

Although junior shotputters use a 12-pound ball, Whalen was working with a 16-pound weight, which is a common training practice.

"It is absolutely not his fault," said Marcus, who was teary when he spoke about Whalen. "Obviously, he may be feeling totally devastated. But it's not something that he's supposed to pay attention to. It's the people in the field who have to be alert."

Chad Smith, a freshman from Cal who finished seventh in the junior competition Thursday, agreed. "Once we are in the ring, officials are supposed to be aware of that," he said. "But I know that guy was almost hit by a discus earlier in the day. It's such a sad story."

At 4:40 Thursday afternoon at the stadium -- about 24 hours after the incident -- Suzuki's passing was recognized by a moment of silence.

"He worked wherever he was needed," public announcer Scott Davis told the crowd, "and he gave tirelessly to the sport."

In Suzuki's honor, flags representing USA Track and Field and the Home Depot Center's ownership group were lowered to half staff, where they will remain until the conclusion on the meet Sunday, organizers said.

It's a common practice in track and field to have older people work as meet officials. Suzuki was among the oldest still working in the sport. He was not scheduled to work the four-day meet but was hired to help at Wednesday's practice.

Marcus said Suzuki's age was not a factor. "Even if someone else was in perfect physical condition, they could have been hit the same way if they had turned their head," he said.

"[Suzuki] was typical of a lot of people who get older. [This] gave him something to live for. This was something he wanted to do, something he liked.

"Since I've become an official, I've known him about 20 years. I consider him not only a friend but a good friend because he would often confide in me. He was always gone from his house. He was always involved in sports, always involved in one track meet or another."

Suzuki had worked for decades as a track starter and cross country official in the California Interscholastic Federation's City Section, which was set to honor him Thursday. Instead, Barbara Fiege, sports commissioner for the section, offered a moment of silence.

"He was the kind of person who didn't just show up at the start of a meet," Fiege said. "He would go out to Pierce College or Griffith Park and walk the course to make sure everything was appropriate."

Former City Section commissioner Hal Harkness was at the Home Depot Center on Wednesday but did not see the accident.

"It's a real sad loss for high school athletics," Harkness said. "He was so unselfish in terms of what he did for the sport. He was just a great guy."

Suzuki is survived by his wife, Dorothy, three children and four grandchildren. Calls to the family's home in West Los Angeles were not returned Thursday, and there was no announcement about services.

*

Times staff writers Helene Elliott and Eric Sondheimer also contributed to this report.

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