Great athlete far from home

Jim Thorpe's surviving children are in a struggle with a Pennsylvania town over the resting place for their father's body.

April 01, 2001|By Arnold Hamilton

JIM THORPE'S family battled for about 70 years before reclaiming his 1912 Olympic gold medals, stripped in a dispute over his amateur status.

Now, four of his surviving children are poised for what may be an even tougher fight: They want their father's remains returned to Oklahoma for a proper American Indian burial in a cemetery near his hometown of Prague.

Officials of Jim Thorpe, Pa., the small town that adopted the Olympic champion's name, erected a memorial in his honor and built a tourism industry around it, are promising a battle.

"We want dad buried where he wanted to be buried," said his youngest son, Jack Thorpe, 63, a former Sac and Fox chief who is housing director for the Kickapoo tribe, based in McLoud, Okla.

It was 47 years ago that Thorpe's widow, third wife Patricia, placed his remains in the Pennsylvania town, even though he had never visited the area.

Her decision was made after Oklahoma's governor vetoed legislation that would have financed a Thorpe memorial in his native state.

The effort to relocate Thorpe's final resting place also highlights what some in Thorpe's family describe as inevitable tension between their father's Sac and Fox religious heritage and his Roman Catholic upbringing and last rites.

"You have two different societies with two different beliefs," said Jack Thorpe, spokesman for the relatives seeking the return to Oklahoma of Thorpe's remains.

"His mother was Catholic, he was baptized Catholic as a child, he married a Catholic and [his third wife] Patricia had rosary for him. But dad divorced twice. He was not a devout Catholic. And he never turned his back on his Indianness. He was always an advocate of it."

He said his family hopes to persuade Jim Thorpe, Pa., to release their father's remains without a legal battle, but is willing to go to court if necessary. Officials in the Pennsylvania town say it will be necessary.

"They want us to relinquish this man voluntarily. That's not going to happen," said Jack Kmetz, president of the Jim Thorpe Hall of Fame. "If they want to fly in here and ask that question, they're just wasting their air fare."

Thorpe's fame stemmed from the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he became the only man ever to win both the pentathlon and decathlon.

He was regarded by many as the 20th century's greatest all-around athlete - a world-class high jumper who played major-league baseball for the former New York Giants and professional football for the NFL's first team, the Canton, Ohio, Bulldogs.

He was one of the first inductees (1951) into the National Football Foundation's Hall of Fame, and his remarkable life inspired a Hollywood movie, "Jim Thorpe, All-American," starring Burt Lancaster.

The tug of war over Thorpe's remains began just weeks after he died of a heart attack at age 64 in Lomita, Calif., in 1953. Grace Thorpe, 79, his youngest daughter, said her family received telegrams and correspondence from many towns expressing interest in providing for her father's remains.

His body initially was returned to Oklahoma, where state lawmakers earmarked $25,000 for a memorial. But Gov. Johnston Murray vetoed the measure, angering Thorpe's widow, third wife Patricia Thorpe, who eventually struck a deal with two small Pennsylvania towns along the Lehigh River. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk agreed to become one town named Jim Thorpe and erect a memorial.

The decision helped turn the dying coal-mining towns into a tourist spot featuring bed-and-breakfasts and shopping.

"She never consulted us about taking him from Oklahoma into Pennsylvania," Grace Thorpe said. "But a widow has that right."

`Don't disturb the dead'

Grace Thorpe, who lives near her father's birthplace in Prague, about an hour east of Oklahoma City, said she is the only surviving child who opposes returning her father's remains to Oklahoma.

Her reason: Jim Thorpe, Pa., has kept its end of the bargain it struck with Patricia Thorpe in a contract signed on May 19, 1954.

The town erected a red granite mausoleum as his final resting place, she said, and it also holds periodic commemorations of Thorpe's life. For example, she said, the town honored her father as the 20th century's top athlete with a celebration last September that included a 3,000-person parade.

"Oklahoma had its chance, but blew it," Grace Thorpe said. "I feel just leave him there, don't disturb the dead.

"Those people [in Jim Thorpe, Pa.] are honorable. They've fulfilled what they said they would do. It's an insult to them" to demand the remains be moved.

Other family members, though, said they were appalled by what they viewed as Patricia Thorpe's unseemly public auction of their father's remains.

"She took his body around and farmed him out to bidders," William Thorpe, 72, a son who lives in Arlington, Texas, told the Associated Press. "Patsy put a lot of focus on Pennsylvania because dad had played football there. So she went into Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and Carlisle and Harrisburg. What she was looking for was money."

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