Native Son

Bill Thorpe, shown here with a statue of his famous father, Jim, in Arlington, wants his dad's body returned to Oklahoma for proper burial.
Carlton Stowers

The lingering legends of Jim Thorpe, perhaps the most talented and honored athlete in American history, are as colorful as they are numerous. So varied were his gifts that he won track meets single-handedly. His speed and agility on the football field enabled the tiny all-Indian college he attended to routinely win over the traditional powerhouses of the day. In 1912, after winning two gold medals at the Stockholm Olympics, the king of Sweden said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." To which Thorpe, who had risen to such lofty heights from the hardscrabble Sac and Fox Nation that is now Oklahoma, is said to have simply smiled and replied, "Thanks, King."

His Olympic accomplishments--winning the decathlon and the pentathlon--would become even more memorable in light of what occurred just months later. Officials of the International Olympic Committee, learning that he'd been paid room and board for playing semipro baseball in the summers of 1909 and 1910, ruled Thorpe had violated the sacred rules governing amateur sport and voted to strip him of his medals and strike his name from the record books.

At the time, however, Thorpe had no time for sports-world martyrdom. He was too busy becoming a two-time All-America football player for tiny Carlisle Indian School, then going on to serve as a player and president of the American Professional Football Association, the forerunner of the NFL. He played pro baseball for the New York Giants, became an outstanding golfer and tennis player, swimmer and gymnast; he even showed his remarkable endurance in a few marathon dancing competitions. Burt Lancaster played him in the film version of his life. And in his twilight years, the American Indian icon spent time himself dabbling as an actor for RKO and Republic Studios. (In addition to playing sidekicks to western stars such as Tom Mix and Johnny Mack Brown, he was cast as the evil Skull Island witch doctor in the 1933 classic King Kong.)

Decades later, he continues to make headlines--this time over his final resting place. His sons argue that it is high time he came home to his Oklahoma roots and be buried according to proper tribal customs.

When the 64-year-old Thorpe died of a heart attack in 1953, he was penniless, part of a tired parade of forgotten sports luminaries once given ticker tape welcomes and royal treatment. His third wife, Patricia, was hard-pressed to even fund a proper burial.

Living in Lomita, California, at the time, she approached Oklahoma lawmakers about providing their native son a fitting memorial. A bill was quickly passed, authorizing a grave site and a $25,000 monument in honor of the talented athlete who had been born in a one-room cabin near the tiny community of Prague. In time, they promised, there even would be a Jim Thorpe Sports Hall of Fame erected in his honor. The bill, however, was vetoed when it reached the governor's desk.

Angered by the rebuff, Patricia Askew Thorpe went shopping.

"She farmed him out to the highest bidder," Arlington investment broker Bill Thorpe, 73, recalls. "Because Dad had played football in Pennsylvania, she focused on that part of the country, contacting people in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Carlisle. What she was looking for was money, plain and simple."

Enter the picturesque mountain boroughs of Mauch Chuck and East Mauch Chuck, located 70 miles north of Philadelphia. Hearing of Mrs. Thorpe's wishes, they not only agreed to raise money for a monument but would incorporate the two municipalities and call the new town Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Finally, in 1957, a granite marker was erected at Thorpe's grave on a hillside that overlooks a Carbon County community he'd never once visited in life.

Now, after two years of discussing the matter, Thorpe's sons say they want his remains to be returned to his native land. "According to the beliefs of the tribe," eldest son Bill points out, "his spirit is not at rest because he never received the traditional tribal burial rites. In fact, on the day they were to be performed, his wife arrived with a hearse and a police escort and took the body away to a funeral home in Tulsa." Only after several months, he says, did she finally have the body shipped to Pennsylvania for burial in the town that would bear his name.

"They can keep the name," says Oklahoma resident Jack Thorpe, at 64 the youngest of the five surviving children, "and the people there could gain attention and respect by voluntarily releasing the remains. We've offered to work with them on this."

So far, nobody's budging, making it necessary for the Thorpes to enlist the help of Oklahoma City attorney Gary James, who is basing his argument to the Pennsylvania town fathers on the federal Native Americans Grave Reparation Act of 1991.

Ron Cunfer, mayor of Jim Thorpe, remembers when Mrs. Thorpe came to his community of just more than 5,000 for the dedication of her husband's monument. (She died in the '70s.) "She seemed quite pleased with what had been done. We gave her husband a fine burial," he says. "Why move him after all these years? Nobody had even mentioned anything like this until recently. Is moving him going to change anything? I don't think so."

Thorpe's sons disagree. The Pennsylvania burial, they say, was sacrilegious. "They just don't understand Indian culture and the way we honor those who have gone on and how we put people to rest," Bill Thorpe says. "It was always Dad's wish to be buried alongside other members of the family in a small reservation cemetery near Shawnee." That, he adds, is what the family wants to do.

It is not the first battle the children have waged in memory of their famed father. For years, they lobbied the International Olympic Committee to reconsider that long ago decision to strip away his titles. Joined by friends and fans, they fought tirelessly until 1983 when IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch finally agreed to restore Thorpe as an Olympic champion and present his family with newly minted replicas of the medals he had won 71 years earlier.

Olympic officials, in fact, first attempted to locate the original medals that had been presented to Ferdihand Bie of Norway (for the pentathlon) and Hugh Wieslander of Sweden (for the decathlon), only to find that one had been destroyed in a fire and the other stolen years earlier.

It was, Bill says, concerns for just such disasters that prompted the family to turn the medals over to the state of Oklahoma for display and safekeeping. "The only time I've ever held one of Dad's medals," he says, "was on the day they were presented to us. Mr. Samaranch handed one to me and the other to my sister Gail."

Aware of the family's plan to loan the medals to Oklahoma, the IOC had silver replicas minted and presented one to each of Thorpe's children as a keepsake of the long-delayed restoration of their father to the Olympic record books.

Their father's medals are now on display in the rotunda of the Oklahoma Capitol building in Oklahoma City, in a glassed vault that sits beneath a life-sized painting of the state's most famous athlete.

But, even there they have not always been completely safe. "A few years ago," Bill says, "a maintenance man working at the capitol building disarmed the alarm, unlocked the vault and took the medals. Fortunately, he was quickly apprehended and they were returned. Immediately thereafter, the alarm system was updated and the code needed to open the vault made secret to all but a select few."

And now they fight a new battle, this time against a small community that once hoped their father's grave site would be a lure to passing tourists. "A couple of years ago," Bill recalls, "my wife and I were on vacation in Pennsylvania, and I stopped by to see it. First of all, it wasn't easy to find. I had to ask for directions. When I did find it, I wasn't very impressed. It was just a granite marker, about 10 feet wide and 4 feet high, with some of my father's athletic accomplishments engraved on it. The site itself wasn't very well-kept." Brothers Jack and Dick, 68, he says, have never visited Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Daughters Gail and Grace, both now in their 80s, on the other hand, have on several occasions and are comfortable with the location. "It's a pretty little town," Grace says. "As far as I'm concerned, everything there is fine."

Not so, argue the determined brothers. Soon, their attorney will pay a visit to Jim Thorpe not to visit its namesake's grave site but, instead, to meet with city officials. If they refuse to relinquish Thorpe's remains, Barry James says he'll simply ask directions to the courthouse where he'll file papers to begin legal proceedings and in doing so will add yet another chapter to the mythlike Jim Thorpe legend.

Son Bill is confident that a burial ceremony soon will be conducted for his father in his native land, finally freeing a spirit that has wandered aimlessly for more than 45 years.

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