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Jim Thorpe's sons want his body back from Jim Thorpe, Pa.

Sunday, January 14, 2001

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

JIM THORPE, Pa. -- Jim Thorpe's once-quiet boys are proud old men now. They say simple dignity prohibits them from visiting the town that carries their father's name and holds his remains.

The football, baseball and track star, whose pair of gold medals from the 1912 Olympics were taken back because he had played professional baseball, never set foot in the town, at least not willingly.

He arrived for the first time in death, his body marketed by his third wife to civic boosters desperate for a tourist attraction.

Behind the deal was the dream of big money, both for townspeople and for the widow, Patricia Thorpe. In what amounted to the auction of a legend's corpse, the depressed Carbon County boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk agreed in 1954 to Patricia Thorpe's suggestion that they merge and name their town after her late husband. The consolidated borough claimed legal possession of Jim Thorpe's body more than a year after his death from a heart attack on March 28, 1953.

 
    A chronology of
Jim Thorpe's life

 
 

Then, using a fund in which hundreds of residents had kicked in a nickel a week for industrial development, they built a $10,000 mausoleum for Thorpe's remains.

Among the town's boosters and bankers and barkeeps, the expectation was that Thorpe's fabled corpse would be their ticket to prosperity. They heard and believed vague stories of how moneyed power brokers would bring the town a modern medical center and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The business boom never materialized, but hard feelings did.

Thorpe's three surviving sons from his second marriage have always regarded his burial in a foreign town as unseemly and sacrilegious.

Today, they are beginning a personal appeal to the people of Jim Thorpe, population 5,048. They say the time is right for the town to voluntarily surrender their father's remains so he can have a proper American Indian burial in his native Oklahoma while his children are alive to see it.

"My Dad's bones won't make or break their town," said Jack Thorpe, 64, the youngest of Thorpe's five living children and the one most attuned to the family's Sac and Fox Indian roots.

He was only 15 when his father died, and he watched the funeral arrangements turn from a somber ritual to bizarre spectacle. To this day, Jack Thorpe said, the Pennsylvania grave site keeps alive the kind of exploitation and ugly controversy that haunted Jim Thorpe in his spectacular but troubled life.

"They can keep the name, but the people there could gain attention and respect by voluntarily releasing the remains," he said from his office outside Oklahoma City, where he is director of public housing for the Kickapoo tribe.

In the town of Jim Thorpe, his idea is eliciting a range of reactions, everything from sympathy for the Thorpe family to bewilderment that it could expect such a concession.

"Oh, brother," said Louise Thear, who works in the office at Jim Thorpe Senior High School, home of the Olympians. "That would put this town in an awkward position."

Her co-worker, Judy Smith, was not so sure. She said the name Jim Thorpe gave two rival towns unity and an identity, and also improved government efficiency by consolidating schools and other services.

Yet, she added, she could imagine how painful the burial arrangement is for Jack Thorpe.

Jack Thorpe's brothers, Bill, 72, and Dick, 66, also hold that their father's remains belong in ancestral ground, not in a town he never even visited. "Dad's spirit is still floating, and it will as long as this goes on," said Bill Thorpe, who lives in Arlington, Texas.

Thorpe's daughters from his first marriage, Grace, 79, and Gail, 83, are more than willing to let the body stay where it is.

Looking for money

The town of Jim Thorpe has adopted Mauch Chunk's old slogan -- "The Switzerland of America" -- and Grace Thorpe said it makes for a picturesque resting place. "It's a pretty little town. Everything's fine up there as far as I'm concerned," she said.

Unlike her brothers, Grace occasionally visits Jim Thorpe, Pa., and her father's granite mausoleum.

"I would like the body back in Oklahoma, too," she conceded. "But Oklahoma blew it as far as Dad was concerned."

After Jim Thorpe died in the Los Angeles suburb of Lomita, Oklahoma's legislature appropriated $25,000 to place the body of its storied native son in a grand mausoleum in Shawnee. But Gov. William H. Murray vetoed the expenditure, giving rise to the myth that Thorpe could not be buried in his home state.

In truth, the family's plan was to give him a simple grave in Garden Grove Cemetery, only a mile or so from Thorpe's boyhood home. Many other Thorpes are buried there.

But Patricia Askew Thorpe, who grew up in Louisville, Ky., and had little interest in American Indian customs, would have none of it.

"She took his body around and farmed him out to bidders," said Bill Thorpe, who was a soldier serving in Korea when his father died. "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."

Carlisle, site of the fabled Indian school where Thorpe had set collegiate football scoring records, seemed the most logical grave site in Pennsylvania, but town leaders there soon soured on Patricia's tactics. They said she demanded money and lots of it.

Finally, in the reeling and rival towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, she found a sympathetic ear. It belonged to Joe Boyle, unabashed community booster and editor of what was then the Mauch Chunk Times-News.

Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk -- once thriving railroad hubs for the anthracite coal industry -- had hit hard times by the 1950s. Boyle embraced the idea that Thorpe's corpse could create a new tourism economy. Then he sold the notion to his readers, complete with unsupported claims that the deal would lead to a 400-bed hospital and a Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Some of the wild speculation was fostered because Bert Bell, then commissioner of the National Football League, had agreed to serve as chairman of the Jim Thorpe Memorial Heart and Cancer Foundation.

On May 18, 1954, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk residents voted 2,203-199 to merge and call their new town Jim Thorpe. But the hospital that Boyle had touted never came, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame settled in 1962 in Canton, Ohio, where Thorpe had starred for the Canton Bulldogs.

For a time, Patricia Thorpe talked of operating a hotel in the town named for her husband. That plan also fell apart. She died in California in 1974.

Across the years, some in the town of Jim Thorpe have conceded that Patricia Thorpe was paid a small but unspecified sum for the body. Sports Illustrated even reported in 1983 that a check was delivered to her by a man named Bob Knappenberger. Knappenberger, now 75 and still living in town, says the magazine's contention was pure fiction. He knew of no money being paid to Patricia Thorpe, he said in an interview last week, and he certainly wasn't part of any deal.

Today, most everyone vigorously denies that a financial arrangement with Patricia Thorpe existed. Rather, most say the name change was a way to pay tribute to Jim Thorpe and to help competing towns pull together for the good of everyone.

Jack Kmetz, president of the Jim Thorpe Sports Hall of Fame, said it took townspeople three years to raise $10,000 for Thorpe's tomb. Nobody had money to shovel Patricia Thorpe's way, he said.

Boyle, the man most instrumental in bringing Thorpe's body to town, is dead. But some in town still believe his idea of creating a tourism trade around Jim Thorpe was sound.

Kmetz said his organization hoped to build a statue and museum in honor of Thorpe. To give up the remains now would be an affront to the town that gave him a needed resting place, Kmetz said.

Confusion, more than any other sentiment, seems to be what first-time visitors feel about Jim Thorpe, the town.

On Broadway, the main thoroughfare, stand the Mauch Chunk 5 & 10 and the Mauch Chunk General Emporium. These are among many businesses that don't bother with the name Jim Thorpe, even though almost 47 years have passed since the Chunk towns officially ceased to exist.

Tourist T-shirts at the 5 & 10 still carry the names of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. Jim Thorpe, Pa., shirts also are available there.

Another puzzlement to many visitors is what Thorpe's tomb is doing in the town. On a recent cool Sunday, a handful of drivers pulled off Route 93 to inspect the memorial.

'Can't be at peace'

Initially, most of the visitors assumed that Thorpe was born nearby or that he had played ball in the area. The truth -- that he had not a single tie to the town -- is only vaguely addressed by the three historical charts near the tomb.

The mausoleum itself carries an inscription quoting King Gustav V of Sweden. After Thorpe's staggering feat of winning gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Gustav sought Thorpe out during the medal ceremony: "Sir," he said, "you are the greatest athlete in the world." Not included on the tomb was Thorpe's casual response: "Thanks, King."

Thorpe held the title of world's greatest athlete even after his medals were taken from him because he had made $15 a week playing semiprofessional baseball. Seventy years passed before his medals were restored and his name was returned to the record books. By then, Thorpe had been dead for almost 30 years.

Jack Thorpe said winning that fight against long odds gives him hope that his father's remains will be returned voluntarily by the townspeople. He said he did not want to bring a lawsuit over the corpse, for it would drag Jim Thorpe's name into the muck of a courtroom brawl.

"Of all the things that happened to Dad over the years, the way he was treated, the stripping of his honors, it's a shame that he still has a controversy around him. He's been dead almost 50 years and he still can't be at peace because of this," Jack Thorpe said.

"Let us bring him home," Jack Thorpe said, "and set him away properly."



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