Charles Dumas, the first athlete to high jump 7 feet and a gold medal winner at the 1956 Olympics, died of cancer Monday morning at his home in Inglewood. He was 66.
Dumas, who worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District for nearly 40 years, made his historic jump while competing for Compton College in the 1956 Olympic trials at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“I remember that day very well,” said Lee Joseph, a friend who worked with Dumas at L.A. Unified. “I was there [June 29, 1956] when he made the jump and it was just unbelievable.... The crowd just couldn’t believe it. The noise was unbelievable.”
After winning the Olympic gold medal in the high jump in Melbourne, Australia, at a then-Olympic record 6 feet 11 1/2 inches, Dumas enrolled at USC, where he lettered for three seasons, 1958-60.
He helped the Trojans to the NCAA title in 1958, and was captain of the track and field team in 1960.
Dumas participated in the 1960 Rome Olympics, but a knee injury prevented him from repeating as Olympic champion. He finished sixth, jumping 6-8.
“He’s one of the Trojans’ all-time greats,” said USC track and field coach Ron Allice. “He broke a barrier that people thought no human would break. Like Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile, Charlie Dumas did something people thought was not possible.”
From 1955 to 1959, Dumas ranked among the top three high jumpers in the world and twice ranked No. 1. He won or shared five consecutive national high jump titles.
Also an excellent hurdler, Dumas was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1990 and the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997.
“He was such a humble person, he hardly ever talked about his track accomplishments,” said Dumas’ daughter, Keasha.
“You had to bring the subject up in order for him to talk about what he did. He still gets autograph requests from people from all over the world.”
Dumas attended Centennial High School in Compton, and played a key role on the Apaches’ state championship track team in 1955.
While in high school, Dumas was regarded as one of the top jumpers in the nation, but in 1956 he moved to the top of the list.
Using the straddle technique, Dumas shocked the track-and-field world with his record-breaking leap at the Coliseum.
“What people don’t know is, that day, Charlie lost his participant’s pass and had to buy a ticket to get into the Coliseum,” said Ken Thompson, a longtime friend and former high school teammate. “Imagine that: He had to buy his way in to compete.”
At the 1956 Olympics, Dumas survived an eight-hour competition, beating Australia’s Charles “Chilla” Porter by three-quarters of an inch.
Once he retired from competition, Dumas began a career as a teacher and administrator. He worked at various schools around Los Angeles, staying longest at Jefferson High, where he was dean of students for more than 15 years. He retired from L.A. Unified in 2001.
“Kids didn’t always know about his accomplishments, but adults knew,” Joseph said of Dumas. “He’ll always be remembered as one of the great ones.”
In addition to his daughter, Dumas is survived by a son, Kyle; three brothers, Cornelius, Frederick and James; and two sisters, Barbara and Delores.
Funeral arrangements are pending.