In Jim Thorpe, common ground

Town: The Pennsylvania locale feels a certain bond to the great athlete who never played there but is buried there.


August 13, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

JIM THORPE, Pa. - Bobby Nappenberger, 78, is sitting at a picnic table in the little park in the town square in the Victorian historic district. He's reminiscing.

"I'll never forget the day she came to town," said Nappenberger, recalling when Patricia Thorpe arrived and changed the town of Mauch Chunk forever. "It was 1953, and I was working at the hotel, behind the desk."

The hotel, which is now The Inn at Jim Thorpe, was the American Hotel in those days, and Nappenberger recalled a visitor could get a room with a bath for $5.50.

"This lady came in with two poodle dogs - one in each hand," he said. "And she says to me, `Young man' - I was young then, 28, and she says - `Young man, does this town have a chamber of commerce?' And I said, `No, ma'am, but the secretary of our borough is just across the street.'

"And within 2 1/2 hours, word came it was Mrs. Thorpe, here with the wild idea to change our name."

Wild, perhaps, but the towns of Mauch Chunk (pronounced Mock Chunk) and East Mauch Chunk, just across the Lehigh River, were looking for something to pull them together and out of a funk that had gripped the area since the early 1900s.

When Patricia Thorpe showed up, offering to bury her famous husband here if the town would change its name to his and honor him in a proper manner, newspaperman Jim Boyle led the campaign. The two towns voted, 2,203 to 199, to join together and make the change.

Mrs. Thorpe, irritated that her husband's home state of Oklahoma had rejected a plan for a $28,000 memorial, signed an agreement that said her husband would remain here as long as the town retained his name. And so a great American athlete was buried in a town he never visited, having come no closer than 40 miles away when he played a college football game in Bethlehem.

`The greatest' of his age

On Sept. 4, the community will hold a parade in celebration of its 50th anniversary as the Borough of Jim Thorpe.

"I think if Jim Thorpe walked into town today, he would feel this was one of his best accomplishments, uniting two distressed communities," said Craig Zurn, chief executive of the Jim Thorpe National Bank. "Two communities who were financially struggling but thought highly enough of him to name their town ... Jim Thorpe."

With the 2004 Athens Olympics beginning this week, there is great anticipation of watching Baltimore swimmer Michael Phelps go for an unprecedented eight gold medals.

But before Phelps had such dreams and even before Mark Spitz wowed the world in 1972 with his record haul of seven gold medals, there was Jim Thorpe. He was, according to a poll taken by ESPN in 2000, the greatest athlete of the 20th century.

As Thorpe, an Oklahoma boy and a member of the Sac and Fox Indian tribe, grew to manhood, his body developed the sculpted look of today's weight-trained athletes. Naturally gifted, Thorpe excelled in amateur and professional sports.

"If my children were young and I had to chose an athlete to look up to, I'd choose Jim Thorpe," said AnneMarie Fitzpatrick, who owns the Nature's Trail gift shop on Broadway and is chairman of the Jim Thorpe Birthday Celebration. "He did it all without steroids and drugs."

At 24, Thorpe competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, and he amazed the world by winning gold in the pentathlon and decathlon just five days apart. It is a feat that has never been matched.

When he was presented his medals by King Gustav V, the monarch grabbed his hand and said, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."

Thorpe, shy, reportedly responded, "Thanks, King."

Six months later, it was learned that, at the suggestion of his coach, Pop Warner, at the Indian Institute in Carlisle, Pa., he had played summer baseball and earned $2 to $5 a game. It was a violation of the Olympics' amateur code, and his medals were revoked.

"I did not play for money but because I liked to play ball," he wrote to the Amateur Athletic Union at the time. "I was not wise in the ways of the world ... I was simply an Indian schoolboy. ... I am sorry to have it all spoil in this way, and I hope the Amateur Athletic Union and the people will not be too harsh in judging me."

The people were more understanding than the AAU, which did not restore his amateur status until 1982, nearly 30 years after his death. The International Olympic Committee returned his medals shortly thereafter.

The loss of Thorpe's medals did not stop him from playing professionally. In 1913, he signed a $6,000 contract to play baseball with the New York Giants and also signed a $250-a-game contract with football's Canton Bulldogs, with whom he would win the world title.

He was a two-sport pro star long before Deion Sanders was born, and went on to serve as the first president of what would become the NFL.

But all the glory failed to translate into financial well-being. Alcoholism took its toll and he died of a heart attack in meager surroundings in Lomita, Calif.

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