Updated at 1:30 p.m. April 3, 2018
Nick Newton, a latecomer to track and field who gained fame as a record-setting masters sprinter and high jumper who invented an improved set of starting blocks, died early Saturday in Palm Springs.
He was 84 and died of pneumonia at Desert Regional Medical Center after a three-day hospitalization, said his daughter, Pamela Crisp.
“He lived a full life. He was a very good grandfather,” said Crisp, whose son Covelli “Coco” Crisp was a major league ballplayer, mainly for Cleveland and the Oakland A’s. “He supported all of his grandchildren. He made it to even his great-grandchildren’s sporting events. He was remarkable.”
Cremation was planned, she said, with a public memorial service from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at the track of Shadow Hills High School in Indio.
A mentor to the L.A. Mercurettes, an elite women’s track team, Newton helped coach a 15-year-old Marion Jones, said his friend of 35 years, Annelies Steekelenburg.
She recalls a meet at UCLA attended by two-time Olympic champion Edwin Moses.
“Nick was walking up the steps. And Edwin said: ‘Hey, Newt. Hey, Newt.’ That’s how loved he was. How famous he was,” she said in a phone interview.
Olympic medalist John Carlos of the Mexico City Games protest was among his friends, she said, along with Olympic champion Daley Thompson of Britain, the world record decathlete.
“Long lost brothers,” she said of Thompson and Newton. “They clicked instantly.”
As a Nike-sponsored athlete, Newton competed in countries including Finland, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Italy and China, said a 2010 biography by his friend George Cohen.
In 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sent Newton, fellow sprinter Carlos and other black athletes to South Africa.
“They competed in the first mixed-race meet of the apartheid era,” Cohen wrote.
Introducing adult age-group track to China, Newton took part in sprints at a September 1982 meet in Nanjing and included a woman in an exhibition relay.
Jeanne M. Carter of Santa Ana thanked Newton and her other 4×100 teammates — Ozzie Dawkins and Alan Maxwell — for letting her share the baton.
“No, I wasn’t as fast as the Chinese man I ran against and, being the slowest on the relay, I ran a short second leg,” Carter said in a letter to National Masters News. “We won, due to the exciting come-from-behind run by Nick (he had a lot of yardage to make up).”
But she was proud to have “proved to the Chinese that men and women can also run together. This is also what the masters program is all about.”
By then, Newton had also made a comeback from cancer.
“Everyone’s been so nice to me. I don’t know how I can ever thank them,” Newton said in 1980, recovering at his Inglewood home after major operations — abdominal surgery to remove a malignant growth and a seven-hour procedure to excise some lymph nodes.
Doctors reportedly said Newton’s superb physical condition would help speed his recovery.
“He’s got the body of a 25-year-old,” one said of Newton — in his late 40s.
In more recent years, Newton fought testicular and prostate cancer, and was forced to use a wheelchair after a failed hip replacement.
In 2004, about the time he retired from competition, he was inducted into the USA Track & Field Masters Hall of Fame, noted for world records he set including the 400-meter dash (51.11 in the 45-49 group) and high jump (5 feet 6 1/2 in the 60-64 group as a Fosbury flopper).
Former world-class sprinter Doug Smith of Laguna Hills recalls meeting Newton in 1979.
“I just remember being in awe of him,” Smith said. “Yet he was so nonchalant about” his achievements. “He was already a world legend in masters track.”
A frequent traveler with Newton as a member of the Southern California Striders, Smith said he wept upon learning of his death.
But he laughed in recalling his friend’s personality.
“He was such a character,” Smith said in a phone interview. “When you were around him, you were always laughing because of the things he would either say or the things he would do. And he never, ever played up that he was the world’s best or world record holder, or any of that.
“He was just having fun in masters track. He was enjoying it.”
Steekelenburg, a native of Holland who still high-jumps in her late 60s, said: “He knew I had no family, so he adopted me. … We were fighting like cats and dogs always, but that’s how we related to each other.”
In recent years, she said she talked every week with Newton.
“If I didn’t pick up the phone or hear from [me] in two days, he said: ‘I’m going to drive out” three hours to her Malibu home.
Brenda Matthews, a world-class sprinter in her late 60s, said she first met Newton in 2000 at her first national championships in Eugene, Oregon.
“I was a rookie and did not know what I was doing,” she said. “He saw that I had potential and was extremely encouraging to me.”
Newton tutored her on use of his starting blocks — tips that she’s passed on to “everyone that will listen to me.”
“Nick invited me to join him at a Striders get-together in Palm Desert,” she said. “I was fascinated by the stories he and his friends shared with me about world competitions and dreamed of being able to pass my stories along to others.”
Newton encouraged Matthews to become president of the Striders, an adult age-group club.
“Every time I saw him, he would tell me how proud he was that I was keeping the legacy going,” she said. “He will forever be a major part of my track and field life.”
Milton Alexander Newton Jr. was born Nov. 6, 1933, in Tarboro, North Carolina, “the son of parents who instilled in him an appreciation for the importance of God, family, country and education,” Cohen wrote.
Newton “decided that he needed to honor his family, develop his independence and contribute in some way to his community,” said the 2010 biography. “He joined the U.S. Army and served with honor during the Korean conflict.”
He moved to California in 1956 — having never run track as a young man.
Going to work for Waste King, he became a tool and die maker, which gave him the skills to build starting blocks for his sprinter daughter Pamela.
“His starting blocks rapidly became the choice of many high schools and colleges nationally, as well as numerous foreign sports programs,” Cohen wrote.
His blocks were endorsed for the 1980 Olympic Trials, but a 1983 item in National Masters News said they wouldn’t be used at the upcoming 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“According to the Olympic Committee, Omega was awarded the contract to provide blocks equipped with electronic timing — a feature Newton’s blocks [didn’t] have but, Newton says, could have easily been added.”
“I’m upset because I was never notified,” he said at the time.
Newton didn’t stop inventing, though.
In March 2013, Newton was 79 when he filed for a patent — for what his wife called a urinary control system for prostate cancer patients.
It goes on the market in June, said Sheila Newton, mourning the fact that “he’s not going to be here to see it take off.”
He’d been working on it diligently for the past four years, she said.
Did it help him?
“Yes, it did,” said his wife of 60 years. “That’s all he used to keep him from being in a catheter.”
Coco Crisp, the retired ballplayer who also won a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox, was one of his 11 grandchildren. Newton also had a son — Darren — and 16 great-grandchildren.
At a ceremony Friday honoring the 50th anniversary of the Oakland A’s, Coco Crisp was honored, Pamela Crisp said.
“He stopped in and saw his Grandpa before he left [for Oakland],” she said. “Dad was able to see him receive that award via video.”
Newton also is survived by two younger brothers — Sonny Murray, a sport deep-sea fisherman in Redondo Beach and Kevin Newton, an artist in San Fernando. Coco’s sister, Sheileah Crisp, is a retired figure skater.
“Coco’s wife, Maria, is an oncologist nurse who always assisted in Dad’s care in and out of the hospital and his beloved daughter-in-law Collette Newton, who loved him dearly,” Pamela Crisp said.
Newton’s grandson, Darren Newton, works at Desert Regional Medical center and would check on his grandfather multiple times a day making sure he was well taken care of, Crisp said.
Darren took care of Newton daily for the last five years from morning to night; he also moved in to help with his dad and remodel his house and anything else around the estate he wanted done.
“Other grandchildren who live in the desert came daily to check on him — Davon, Sheila and Batina. Others are Gelina, Brianna, Mariah, Mahayla and Darren III,” she said.
Great-grandchildren whom Newton loved and supported in their sporting events included Amailee, Caden, Collin, Christian, Micah, Sheila, Ja’Mya, Jaylen, Jamarian and Twan. Others are Kemani, Ayanna, Clarissa, Savon, Davon Jr., Anthony and RJ.
Pamela Crisp called her husband, Loyce, her dad‘s best friend.
“They would golf,” she said. “Funny stuff because Dad was not a golfer. They would just hang out in his room; he would lay in the bed with him and they would talk for hours … about all kinds of things and watch movies on boxing together and anything else.”