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Rod Milburn, Olympic champ, dead at 47

November 13, 1997

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) _ Telephone calls poured into Southern University where Rodney Milburn, a U.S. gold medal winner in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1972 Olympics, once set records.

``We’ve gotten so many calls,″ track coach Johnny Thomas said Wednesday. ``This morning one of his best friends was standing in the rain outside my office. I called some of his old coaches. We talked about the good times.″

Milburn, 47, was found dead Tuesday in a rail car full of a bleach solution at the paper plant where he worked, police said.

There was no indication of how Milburn wound up in the car at the Georgia Pacific plant near Baton Rouge. Authorities said they did not suspect foul play.

Milburn had been assigned to unload a rail car containing liquid sodium chlorate, a chemical used in the bleaching process of paper making, said Patty Prats-Swanson, a spokeswoman for Georgia Pacific.

He was found at about 10:45 p.m. Tuesday in the rail car by a supervisor who went looking for him when he failed to answer a page, Prats-Swanson said.

Steve Church, another company spokesman, said Milburn’s body was found submerged in the solution.

``We don’t know any more at this point,″ he said Wednesday. ``We are cooperating with authorities.″

Lt. Don Strickland of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office said there was nothing to indicate criminal activity but would not speculate further.

Preliminary autopsy results showed that Milburn died after inhaling the solution and from massive burns to his body, the parish coroner said.

Milburn, a native of Opelousas and a track star for Southern University in Baton Rouge, won the gold medal in 13.24 seconds, a record that was not broken for five years.

The year before the Olympics at Munich, he went undefeated and won 27 consecutive finals.

After 1972, Milburn turned to professional track but resumed his amateur competition in 1980 and was ranked fifth in the world. He remained world ranked until his retirement in 1983.

Thomas followed Milburn’s career from college to the Olympics.

He taught athletics at an elementary school while Milburn was at Southern, and often brought his students to the university to see Milburn practice.

``I was not used to seeing a man run hurdles in 13.2 seconds,″ Thomas said. ``I just couldn’t believe how at ease, how fluid, how cat-like he was, just as if no obstacles were there.″

When Thomas became Southern’s track coach in 1978, he asked Milburn to teach him about hurdles.

``It was an area I was not familiar with. But we’ve been successful at Southern in the hurdles. I tell my kids we owe it to Rodney Milburn.″

Thomas described Milburn as a quiet person, ``but get him onto the track and he became energized.″

Milburn coached track at Southern from 1984 to 1987. He often worked with young athletes, and he carried the 1996 Olympic torch on the Southern campus when it came through Baton Rouge, Thomas said.

He said he was trying to locate Milburn’s son to let him know how much his father will be missed.

``He was really a good guy,″ Thomas said. ``He’s going to be missed.″

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