Jim Thorpe’s sons battle to rebury him in Oklahoma

The famous athlete is entombed in Jim Thorpe, Pa., but his children say tribal burial is “what Dad wanted.”

04/21/2012 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:24 PM

Jim Thorpe’s athletic greatness is quantified by minutes and seconds, by yards, feet and inches.

He could run faster, jump higher, throw farther and plow over more tacklers than anybody else.

But a pending lawsuit about the man some consider the greatest athlete of all time lacks the same clarity.

According to the suit’s claims, Thorpe is either a Catholic resting in peace in a mausoleum in Pennsylvania or he’s a Native American waiting for a traditional tribal burial so his spirit can cross over to eternity.

A federal court will decide the permanent gravesite for Thorpe, whose sports legend begins with him chasing down rabbits as a boy at the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence.

The case already has produced evidence that Thorpe — an athlete who piled up superlatives like so many sweat socks — must have had the wackiest funeral of all time.

Go back 59 years. At a feast on the night before Thorpe was to be buried on Sac and Fox tribal land in Oklahoma, his wife, Patsy, showed up with a hearse and police escort, loaded up the body and sped away down a dark rural road, leaving gaped mouths behind in the dust.

She put the burial rights out to the highest bidder, insisting only that the winning town change its name to Jim Thorpe.

Two worn out coal-mining boroughs in Pennsylvania took her up on the offer, though Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk may have been thinking about a name change anyway. They merged, became Jim Thorpe, Pa., and that is where the town’s namesake has been in a mausoleum since 1953.

Folks in Jim Thorpe today say he needs to stay put.

But Thorpe’s sons from a previous marriage, John, Richard and William “Bill” Thorpe, claim otherwise. They, along with the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, have sued the borough of Jim Thorpe in U.S. District Court for the right to remove Thorpe’s remains from the mausoleum and take them for burial on tribal land in Oklahoma.

“It’s what Dad wanted,” Bill Thorpe, 84, told The Star this week from his home in Arlington, Texas. “He told me that, he told us all that. I was there the night Patsy came and took him, but there was nothing I could do but holler.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Patsy Thorpe died in 1972. The couple had no children.

Steven Ward, the Tulsa attorney representing the sons, said the case could go to trial later this year.

The lawsuit bases its legal claim on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA for short).

The purpose of the 1990 law was to stop the exploitation and commercialization of the remains of Native Americans. The Sac and Fox recently used the law to sue the state of Missouri over abuse of tribal graves in the northeast part of the state where the tribe wintered in the early 1800s.

According to the Thorpe suit, the famous athlete’s remains “after essentially being shopped to several cities were buried at a monument in Jim Thorpe, Pa., as part of a plan to make the gravesite a tourist attraction.”

A response filed by attorneys for the town argued that NAGPRA does not apply because Thorpe’s mausoleum is not in a museum or any commercial entity. Their response also noted that the town has treated Thorpe’s remains with “full dignity and respect” and has become a “fitting tribute and memorial” as well as a “final and permanent resting place.”

The attorneys seek, too, to diminish any Native American significance by pointing out that Thorpe was part Irish and a practicing Catholic.

“As such, any attempt to exhume and disinter Jim Thorpe’s body would violate the Catholic beliefs that he practiced his whole life,” the response says.

Sandra Massey, the historic preservation officer for the Sac and Fox Nation, disagrees.

Yes, Jim Thorpe had Irish blood, she acknowledged. But he was born and raised on tribal land in Oklahoma. And after he left to pursue sports, he would always return.

“He would take part in ceremonies and he knew the language,” Massey said this week from tribal offices in Stroud, Okla. “He told family members he wanted to be buried in Oklahoma.

“That town (Jim Thorpe) set themselves up to exhibit him. This case is about two guys who want their dad back.”

Thorpe was born May 28, 1888, on a farm in the Oklahoma territory, a descendant of the great Sac and Fox chief, Black Hawk. Because there were few schools on Indian lands, young Jim was sent to the United States Indian Industrial Training School in Lawrence. Back then, it was essentially a boarding school for grades 1 through 12.

The school is now Haskell Indian Nations University.

It’s not known how old Thorpe was when he arrived or how long he stayed.

“But we know he didn’t like it here,” Haskell spokesman Steve Prue said this week. “He ran away. Actually he walked — from Lawrence all the way to Miami, Okla.”

Thorpe would end up at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he led the Indians football team — coached by Pop Warner — to two unofficial national championships, beating bigger and more established teams, such as Penn State, along the way. Newspaper accounts from the time refer to Thorpe as the best player in the country.

As halfback, he would often yell across the line before the snap to tell the defense where he was headed, daring them to stop him. Once at halftime, he carried two footballs to the 50-yard line, dropped kicked one through goalposts at one end, then turned around and did it again in the other direction.

At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Thorpe won gold in the decathlon and pentathlon, a feat never matched. In presenting the medals, King Gustav V of Sweden told Thorpe: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”

The medals were later taken away after it was learned that Thorpe had received $2 a game to play semi-pro baseball for a team in Rocky Mount, N.C. But the hardware was returned in 1982, after it was determined that the Olympic Committee did not follow proper procedures.

After the Olympics, Thorpe played six years of major league baseball and 14 seasons of professional football, making the NFL’s 1920s all-decade team.

He also golfed, wrestled and excelled at ballroom dancing. In a poll of sports writers in 1950, Thorpe far outdistanced Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Ty Cobb and Bobby Jones to be named the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th century.

Not bad for a guy who preferred drinking beer to working out.

Thorpe, who’d been married three times, died nearly penniless on March 28, 1953, in his trailer home in Lomita, Calif. He was 64.

His body was taken to Oklahoma for a traditional tribal burial.

The plan was to bury him in a temporary mausoleum until a permanent monument could be built. Family and tribal members gathered for the traditional two-day ceremony that dated back hundreds of years, one with singing and praying during which Thorpe’s spirit would cross to the other side.

But that’s when wife Patsy showed up with the hearse and Oklahoma state troopers.

“He was being prepared for his journey, but the funeral was never completed,” said Massey, the tribal historian. “That needs to happen.”

Today at Haskell in Lawrence, students work out at the Jim Thorpe Fitness Center. The university has not taken a position in the legal fight.

“But I can certainly understand what the sons are trying to do,” said Prue, the school’s spokesman. “Haskell is very proud he came to this school. We love the fact that he started here and we count him as part of the Haskell family.”

The sons said they didn’t want to sue. They said they asked politely over the years to have the remains returned, but were always turned down.

Since their lawsuit was filed last year, one of the sons has died. But before he did, John Thorpe told The New York Times, “I don’t have anything against Jim Thorpe, Pa. But some things are not for sale.”

Town officials over the years have always said they had an agreement and they followed it. A Thorpe granddaughter has supported them.

This weekend the Pennsylvania town, located in the Poconos on the Lehigh River, will celebrate “Jim Thorpe Earth Day,” a crafts and music festival. Visitors will no doubt make their way to the mausoleum, which sits on soil brought in from Oklahoma and even a little from the Olympic stadium in Stockholm.

It is believed that Jim Thorpe the man never stepped foot in Jim Thorpe the town.

The town’s website speaks at length about Thorpe’s sports greatness. It makes no mention of how he came to rest there.

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