COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (April 1, 2016) – Trailblazing volleyball Olympian Verneda Thomas (Aloha and Great Lakes Region), 79, passed away Wednesday from post-surgical complications to replace a heart stent.
Thomas was a pioneer in the sport of volleyball as she made the inaugural U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball Team roster at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, as well as only one of two active African-American players competing in USVBA Nationals at the time. She was an international elite high jumper in the 1950s, but made a quick impression when she started playing volleyball in 1960 with Chicago Rebels under legendary coach Bertha Lucas.
After the Olympics, Thomas continued to play with the Rebels before joining Locahi Hawaiians in the mid-1970s. She later transitioned to being a USA National referee in 1982 and was an FIVB qualified scorekeeper before retiring at the end of the 2012-13 season.
Thomas, fairly new to the sport in the 1960s, was tall, athletic and the only African-American on the Olympic Team in 1964. She had been a member of U.S. women’s track and field team, winning the national high jump title in 1957, and had been coached by Dr. Donnis Thompson, who would later become the University of Hawaii women’s athletic director.
“The California girls knew each other, and then there was me, from Chicago,” said Thomas, a chemist and former research associate at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in June 2014. “I was a little older (28) and we had nothing in common. And in the 1960s, it was kind of devastating as far as the racial discrimination thing. At the nationals, I couldn’t stay in the same hotel as my team. I had competed internationally in track and never had that same segregation in other countries that I encountered in the U.S.”
A memorial service will be held on April 8 from 5-9 p.m. at Nuuanu Mortuary (2233 Nuuana Ave.) in Honolulu. The visitation will be from 5-6 p.m., followed by the presentation and open mic from 6-7:15 p.m. Fellowship and acknowledgements start at 7:15 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to help cover memorial expenses. Cards, letters and/or donations can be sent to Verneda’s niece at: Karen Campbell, 197 Tecumseh Drive, Bolingbrook, IL 60490.
Statement from Doug Beal, USA Volleyball CEO
“I am so very sad to pass along the news of the passing of 1964 Olympian Verneda Thomas. This is particularly sad and unfortunate as Verneda was in seemingly good health, still active and enjoying life. Apparently complications developed after a normally routine procedure to replace a stent and she passed shortly after the surgery.
“To describe Verneda as a “trailblazer” hardly does her justice, but she was surely that. She excelled in sports, but she was a warm, upbeat, outgoing and engaging person and personality. She loved the sport and led the way on the court and off, participating for her long career as a world class player and then top official and scorer. We were fortunate to be able to spend time with her recently at the 1964 Olympian reunion in 2014 and a follow up event with teammates and peers from her era.
“Verneda started in the Chicago area, eventually spending much of her life in Hawaii—like her talents and influence she spanned and cut a wide swath inside USVBA. We have lost a very special member of our family and a joy of a presence to be around. We will forward funeral arrangements as we receive them.”