Don H. Potts, one of the world’s foremost track and field statisticians and historians, has died. He was 79.
Potts died of pneumonia Nov. 1 at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in April and had suffered a heart attack in the last few months.
Potts, a Seattle native, had an undergraduate degree in physics and a doctorate in mathematics from Caltech. The mind needed to excel in those subjects led to a steel-trap memory when it came to track statistics, particularly those in the sprints, his favorite events.
“When it came to the sprints, he had no peer,” said Scott Davis, the meet director of the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in Walnut and one of the founding members, along with Potts and Stan Eales, of the Federation of American Statisticians of Track.
“Don certainly has to be regarded as one of the foremost experts on the sport,” Davis said.
Potts, a professor of mathematics at Cal State Northridge from 1965 to 1991, was an avid track fan from an early age. He compiled a scrapbook about the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles when he was 10 and another about the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin when he was 14.
He became the U.S. news editor for Track & Field News magazine a few months after it was founded in 1948. For years he and Italian Roberto Quercetani compiled the annual world and U.S. rankings the magazine is known for.
“I’ve always said that Don and Roberto were the most important people in keeping Track & Field News going in the early years,” said Cordner Nelson, one of the co-founders of the magazine. “Don was basically in charge of collecting the news in the U.S. and Roberto was in charge of what was going on in Europe.”
Potts, Quercetani and nine others founded the Assn. of Track and Field Statisticians in 1950.
In 1951, the group published an annual that included all-time world lists in each men’s track and field event as well as a world list for each event for the previous year.
The ATFS annual, which now includes lists for men’s and women’s events, published its 51st edition this year and is considered an indispensable resource for avid track fans or media members covering the sport.
From 1946 to 1951, Potts was a member of the mathematics department at Northwestern University. After that he held a variety of jobs, working for the U.S. Navy Electronics Laboratory in San Diego, teaching mathematics at Cal State Long Beach, lecturing at UC Santa Barbara and being a research associate at UC Berkeley during that time.
Potts began teaching at Northridge in the fall of 1965. He and Davis met three years later when Davis was working toward a bachelor of science degree in mathematics.
Davis eventually found out that Potts was the renowned track statistician. In subsequent years they collaborated with Quercetani to publish three books chronicling the progression of U.S. track records for men since 1877 and for women since 1890.
In the mid-1990s, Potts wrote a biography of American Lon Myers, one of the greatest track athletes of the 19th century. He and Davis were working on a book chronicling the top track performances in the world from 1911 to 1920.
He and Davis had also done the research for a book on the 100 greatest 100-yard or 100-meter races of all time. It was tentatively titled “100 Centuries.”
Potts, who was buried Wednesday at Pacific Crest Cemetery in Redondo Beach, is survived by four children: Victoria Arch of Hollywood; Robert Potts of Culver City; Pauline Yonts of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; and Valerie Potts of Santa Barbara, and a grandchild, Anastasia Serczyk of Anaheim.