A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Location: Southeastern, Pennsylvania, United States

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Send Jim Thorpe Home!

One story that percolated up from under my radar a few months ago concerned the on-going efforts to return the body of sports great Jim Thorpe (1888-1953) to his desired resting place. His last wish was to be buried in the land of his ancestors in Oklahoma. However, his cash poor widow offered his remains (for a price) to any town who would rename their town after her late spouse. A town in northeastern Pennsylvania, Mauch Chunk, answered her request, anticipating to cash in on his legacy and prop up the finances of the depressed town.

There were other motives — a hoped for medical center, and perhaps the Football Hall of Fame would land in the newly christened Jim Thorpe — but neither came to pass. Since 1954, the earthly remains of Jim Thorpe (the athlete) have rested in a red granite mausoleum in Jim Thorpe (the town). Enter Thorpe’s sons, now old men, who have been negotiating with the town for decades to have their father’s remains disinterred and transferred to Oklahoma. The town fathers have balked at the seemingly dignified request, and now the case is headed for a courtroom in Scranton.

Most history students should be acquainted with Thorpe’s life story, but in case you’re not familiar here is a quick recap. Thorpe was born on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, and attended the Carlisle (PA) Indian Industrial School where many Native American children were sent to socialize them out of their ancient culture and into the white American culture. Thorpe became a standout football player while attending Carlisle, but his greatest fame occurred when he won the two gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. He was quickly recognized as one of the greatest athletes of the time, and received a hero’s welcome (complete with a Broadway ticker tape parade) upon his return to the United States.

His fall from fame happened almost as quickly. The following year, he was found to have accepted money to play baseball prior to the Olympic Games, a violation of the Olympics policy of allowing only amateur athletes into competition. He was stripped of his medals and the shame haunted him for the rest of his life.

Thereafter, Thorpe played baseball, football and basketball (both professional and amateur) before moving into a career in the entertainment field. The Internet Movie Data Base ( lists over 60 screen credits for Thorpe between 1931 and 1950. Considering the high unemployment for actors even in good times, and that this was during the Great Depression, Thorpe’s steady work in films could have been regarded as respectable. Unfortunately, the roles offered to him were either uncredited extra parts as football players in the background, or as the stereotypical Indian in many Westerns. One example was his role as the Medicine Man in a lesser Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle from 1936, Silly Billies. Regardless, Thorpe’s life after the Olympic controversy was a series of wasted opportunities, exacerbated by chronic alcoholism.

Now the town of Jim Thorpe wants to hold onto his remains because he is so much a part of the town. Never mind that he never set foot in Mauch Chunk when he was alive. The town may have had noble intentions when they first enticed Thorpe’s widow to bury him there, but now over 50 years later, those intentions seem to be very selfish. It’s not like they need him there anymore to attract the tourist trade.

The town of Jim Thorpe has a wonderful variety of 19th century architecture styles, recreational opportunities like white water rafting, and a scenic railway to rake in the hospitality dollars. Why they need the remains of the greatest athlete America ever produced is beyond many people’s comprehension.

The law is not on the town’s side. One federal regulation stipulates that any agency or institution which receives federal funding must return Native American cultural items and remains to their peoples, and the borough — which gets money for education, housing and community development - may be in violation of that statute. Popular sentiment is also against them. How many times have we heard that a dearly departed’s last wish is not carried out? Right, it very rarely happens!

Perhaps a compromise has been suggested before, and perhaps a compromise may be the only viable solution for the court to decide. The town should do the right thing and release Jim Thorpe’s remains to his children. In return, the family should recognize that having a town named after their father will be a lasting tribute to his legacy.

(Thank you for reading. Please remember Jim Thorpe’s contribution to our nation’s history, and, for that matter, our nation’s treatment of his people.)


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