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OBITUARIES | Joe Alston, 1926 - 2008

FBI agent was U.S. badminton champion

April 24, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Joe Alston, an FBI agent and badminton champion who was the best player in the U.S. in 1955 when he became the only badminton player ever featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, has died. He was 81.

The Solana Beach, Calif., resident died April 16 at nearby Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas of complications following cardiac arrest, said his son Tony.

Badminton officials saw Alston's appearance on the front of the magazine as acknowledgment of the success of the nation's players in a sport that historically has been seen in the U.S. as a mainstay of backyard barbecues instead of indoor racket courts.

When the March 7, 1955, cover hit newsstands, Alston was in his fourth year with the FBI and had just won his second U.S. Open singles title. He expected to be reassigned within the FBI, but his growing sports fame intervened.

"That picture really changed my life," Alston told Sports Illustrated in 1999.

"The bosses said, 'Maybe this isn't the time to have you doing undercover surveillance.' As a result, I continued working investigations -- kidnappings, extortions, bank robberies, all the good stuff -- the rest of my 30 years in the bureau," he said in the magazine.

From 1967 through 1980, Alston served as the FBI's major case coordinator in Los Angeles. He was the lead Los Angeles agent investigating the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and was involved in the ongoing investigation of hijacker D.B. Cooper, Alston's family said.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover thought that having an agent who won badminton championships brought the bureau good publicity, so Alston was allowed to take several weeks of leave each year to travel to tournaments, Sports Illustrated reported in 1999.

From 1951 to 1967, Alston won a dozen national titles, including two mixed-doubles titles with his wife, Lois, who has been ranked as high as No. 3 in the world in women's singles. He represented the U.S. eight times in the Thomas Cup, the world men's team championships.

His son Tony said his "greatest accomplishment" in his sport was becoming the only American to win the men's doubles title -- with Johnny Heah of Malaysia -- in 1957 in the All England Open Badminton Championships, considered "the badminton equivalent of Wimbledon."

Vicki Toutz of USA Badminton, the governing body of the sport, called Alston "a true champion who understood the strategy of the game very well. He was fairly slight in build but extremely quick."

Joseph Cameron Alston was born Dec. 20, 1926, in San Diego, the youngest of four children of Edwin and Jennie Alston. His father was a businessman and his mother taught high school physical education.

As a child, Alston learned to play badminton at the municipal gymnasium in San Diego's Balboa Park.

Shortly after getting out of the merchant marine in 1947, he met his future wife, Lois Smedley, on a badminton court in San Diego.

In 1950, he earned a bachelor's degree in business at what is now San Diego State. A year later, he graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and got married the next day.

After serving as an FBI agent in Fargo, N.D., and Detroit, Alston transferred to the Los Angeles office in 1953. His fellow agents "were either attorneys or jocks. . . . From sports, you learn to hang in there on an investigation," Alston told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1993.

He raised his two sons in Pasadena. His son Tony, of Mission Viejo, was a leading badminton player in the 1980s and also is an FBI agent. Alston's other son, Nick, became a mortgage banker in San Diego.

While Alston and his wife regularly practiced badminton for hours in Los Angeles-area gyms, their young sons would sleep beneath the bleachers.

"They'd bring our toys and Army men," Tony Alston said. "If we were good, they'd take us out to a chili burger afterward at Twohey's in Alhambra."

In addition to his wife and two sons, Alston is survived by three grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. May 18 at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, 2131 Pan American Plaza, San Diego.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donating to the museum, which includes Alston in its hall of fame. Details: www.sdhoc.com/main/donate.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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