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Jim Thorpe, Pa., fights to keep its namesake

First Published Oct 20 2013 10:00AM      Last Updated Oct 20 2013 11:44 am
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According to a history compiled by the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe’s widow and Oklahoma’s governor negotiated a deal for the state to build a grave site and memorial after Thorpe’s death at age 64 in Lomita, Calif. But after the Legislature approved funding, the governor abruptly changed course and vetoed it.

Furious, Patsy Thorpe began, in the words of William Thorpe, "shopping my dad’s body around the country."

She traveled to Philadelphia, where she tried and failed to persuade the commissioner of the National Football League to pay for a grave site and memorial. Thorpe played pro football and was the NFL’s first president.



William Thorpe said his stepmother also failed to enlist Carlisle, Pa., home of Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where Thorpe excelled in football and track (the teams were called the Indians). He was sent there at age 16 by his father to learn a trade.

While in Philadelphia, Patsy Thorpe saw a news story about Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk holding "nickel-a-week" fundraisers to save the depressed towns. She contacted town leaders and negotiated the deal that brought the towns a new name and Jim Thorpe’s body.

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Thorpe was voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century by an Associated Press poll in 1950. In his prime, his fame was comparable to that of quarterback Peyton Manning or Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps today, minus the multimillion-dollar contracts and lucrative endorsement deals.

Thorpe’s parents were both half-white and half-Indian, and he was raised as an Indian named Wa-tho-huk, or Bright Path. He endured ridicule and patronizing comments over his Indian heritage for most of his life.

Visitors to Jim Thorpe’s tiny town hall can request a photocopy of the notarized, three-page contract between the widow and the towns signed May 19, 1954, one day after voters approved the deal. The typewritten contract stipulates that neither the widow nor her heirs "will remove or cause to be removed the body of her said husband."

Mayor Sofranko said that provision would expose the town to another lawsuit if it were to return Thorpe to Oklahoma.

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William Thorpe said Thorpe’s sons and tribe had every right to say where his father is buried because Thorpe repeatedly told family members he wanted to be buried in his native state. If he does get his father back, he said, he’ll arrange for around-the-clock security.

The current memorial is a tourist attraction, William Thorpe said. William, of Arlington, Texas, and his brother Richard, 79, who lives in Oklahoma but not on the reservation, are the only survivors among Jim Thorpe’s eight children.

The Sac and Fox Nation, in a statement on the website jimthorperestinpeace.com, said: "Our tribesman, Jim Thorpe ... did not choose to be so far away from his family. ... His children are here. His memories began here. His people are here. His heart was here. Let this father come home to his children."

Nestled in deep green gorges in the Lehigh Valley, Jim Thorpe, population 4,800, is a picturesque collection of Federalist and Greek Revival mansions. It features a lively historic district, the mansions of Pennsylvania railroad barons Asa Packer and Harry Packer, an old railroad and stately churches.

"We don’t want him to be a tourist draw. We want to honor him," shop owner Fitzpatrick said.

Michelle Klock, a teacher, brought her photography class to the memorial on a recent morning. She was torn by the lawsuit, and by the realization that Thorpe had no say in where he was buried.

"They should just resolve it one way or the other, and let the poor man rest in peace," Klock said.

 

 

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