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H.D. Thoreau Jr., 1923 - 2007

Olympic commissioner ran track events

January 01, 2008|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

H.D. Thoreau Jr., who used his meticulous passion for statistics and his love of athletics to become a leading track-and-field expert as well as an influential Olympic official, has died. He was 84.

Thoreau, the co-commissioner for track-and-field events at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, died Saturday of complications from Alzheimer's disease and a stroke at a hospice in Palo Alto, said his son David.

For the 1984 Games, Thoreau oversaw the renovation of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum facilities that included the installation of the composition track with new curbs for better drainage and safer running, a Times story noted. The track also had easier, longer curves designed to make the competition more fair. Athletes competing in field events found longer runways in the pole vault, long jump and triple jump. And, reflecting Thoreau's passion for statistics, the historic peristyle end contained some of the best scoreboards then available.

Born in Denver on April 13, 1923, Thoreau moved with his family to Southern California as a boy. At 9, he attended his first Olympics, the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. Enthralled with baseball as a young man but not a gifted athlete, he used his ability with numbers to keep track of team sports. He would eventually apply that gift to track and field.

After graduating from high school in Pasadena, Thoreau -- a distant cousin of writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau -- completed two years at Stanford University before serving in Army intelligence during World War II. After the war, he completed his degree at Stanford, majoring in journalism. He was president of his graduating class in 1947.

Two years later, Thoreau went to work for the Pacific Coast Athletic Commission, the governing arm of what is now the Pac-10 conference, as head of record-keeping. He later moved up to an assistant commissioner post with duties that included public relations and rule investigation and enforcement.

In the early 1950s, he went to work for the NCAA in New York, where he was one of the early editors of the NCAA college sports guides, according to his son David.

Thoreau returned to Southern California in the mid-1950s and found work as director of sports information for the USC athletic department. While at USC, he also participated in several radio broadcasts as a track commentator.

But in 1956, his career took a turn when California officials appointed him general manager of the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, the first Winter Games held in the Western United States. As general manager, he oversaw construction of many of the facilities.

"That was four years of the hardest work I've ever done," Thoreau once told The Times. "And I never did learn to ski or skate."

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Thoreau worked as a broadcaster for CBS and reported on track-and-field events.

He also was a successful businessman. In the 1960s, Thoreau joined Hale Bros. Associates in San Francisco and eventually became president of the real estate investment firm. According to his son, Thoreau was an early investor in Silicon Valley venture capital. He moved to Southern California in the mid-1970s and stayed in investment banking and venture capital.

He married Margaret Anderson in 1946. After her death in 1991, he married Eleanor Wise Vayssie and returned to Northern California.

In addition to his wife and son David, he is survived by a daughter, Alison; another son, Scott; and four grandchildren.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the Human Options Shelter for women and children, P.O. Box 53745, Irvine, CA 92619.

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