Thorpe sold down river, even by town that bears his name

John Steadman

July 22, 1992|By John Steadman

JIM THORPE, Pa. -- Memories and recollections of an abused, unfortunate, misunderstood authentic American Indian hero flash painfully into focus upon entry to this picturesque valley community nestled amid the tableau of a glorious mountain backdrop. This is the only town to ever change its name for the stated desire to cash in on the achievements of an athlete.

The crass commercialism erased from the map what was known for more than a century as Mauch Chunk. Instead, it was renamed Jim Thorpe, in memory of the standout of the 1912 Olympics. Thorpe later was a major-league baseball and pro football player who was deprived of his medals and then, after a wait of 69 years, had them restored. It's a misnomer, a pity, even a travesty.

Thorpe was born in Yale, Okla., and studied and played at the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School. He never set foot in Mauch Chunk. But the citizens, out of desperation, voted in 1954 to trade in their long-established name so as to adopt him in death with the idea he would bring instant notoriety to the area and rehabilitate its economy.

This is where Jim was eventually buried, after his third wife took his remains from Lomita, Calif., where he died, to Shawnee, Okla., and then to Tulsa. Finally, Mauch Chunk became the "destination in death" because it represented the best financial deal she could arrange. A body for auction? That of Thorpe? Yes, too bad.

His mausoleum of cherry red marble is impressive but that's all. There are no relics, as you might expect, from his playing days. Tourists desiring to relate to the story of Thorpe go away disappointed. There are seven faded photos on part of one wall in the old New Jersey Central Depot, which serves as a combination railroad/miners' museum, and that's the only tangible display.

If ever a situation was grossly contrived for profit, this is it. Why go to the trouble of altering the post office stamp if nothing else was going to be done to perpetuate the remarkable athletic deeds of a man whose personal life had more sorrow than any individual should need endure?

Some of the lingering contention over the change from Mauch Chunk to Jim Thorpe, almost 40 years after the fact, still creates an identity problem. On Broadway, the town's main thoroughfare, there's the Jim Thorpe National Bank and, directly across the street, the Mauch Chunk 5 & 10 Cent Store. The preserved railroad station has a sign reading Jim Thorpe, displayed trackside, but at the other entrance to the building, the name is Mauch Chunk.

It was in 1954, when Mauch Chunk, down on its financial luck, learned Thorpe's third wife, the widow Pat, would be receptive to burying Jim any place that cared to extend a bid.

There were promises that if Mauch Chunk sponsored such a move, immediate benefits would be forthcoming, such as building a medical research center, the location of a sporting goods factory and a shrine to the mighty Thorpe, voted America's greatest all-around athlete during the first half of this century.

None of the proposals materialized but the chief of all Indian athletes, he of Sac and Fox ancestry, is entombed on a knoll outside of town on what is Highway 903 or North Street to the natives.

A well-spoken daughter, Charlotte Thorpe, age 72, talking from her home in Phoenix, is still disturbed at the monetary aspect of shipping her father's body to a place he had never visited.

"I feel terrible about it," she said. "It's a case of trying to make a buck by using Dad's name. Two of my sisters, Grace and Gail, in Prague, Okla., would like to return his remains to the Oklahoma territory where he was born. Personally, I believe he should stay where he is. It is a beautiful mausoleum and Mauch Chunk tried hard to honor him.

"I sincerely hope his name continues to be glorified in the best of ways. I hope the Thorpe memorabilia will be given to the Indians in Oklahoma. Why? Because Jim was for the red man. The controversy hasn't been helpful. With my father having three marriages and so many relatives, all with different ideas, there is a little friction within the family."

Mauch Chunk, which in Indian tongue means Bear Mountain, abounds in natural beauty. Its appearance and the way Victorian houses line the streets in quaint surroundings give it a rightful claim to what it was once called, "The Little Switzerland of America." Officially, it's Jim Thorpe but Mauch Chunk seems a better geographical and historical fit.

"The last couple of years there seems to be more talk to once again call it Mauch Chunk," commented Ellen Driesbach, who works in an ice cream parlor. "I was 8 years old when they changed it. All the things that were promised, like the hospital, never came into being."

Thorpe was an Olympic standout of momentous magnitude. He won both the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Games held in Stockholm, Sweden. It was King Gustav, in personal tribute, who offered the celebrated testimonial: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."

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