Sunday, March 18, 2012

Battle over athlete Jim Thorpe’s burial site continues

Olympian Jim Thorpe is at the center of a battle between a Pennsylvania town that gave him a resting place, and his sons, who want to bury his remains in Oklahoma.

PRAGUE, Okla. — Funerals, like weddings, can be messy family affairs. Not everything goes according to plan. Emotions run high. Even pleasant people can be tense.

Few people who met Patsy Thorpe — third and most difficult spouse of Jim Thorpe, that primordial American athlete — accused her of being pleasant, in particular Thorpe’s children from previous marriages.

So when she pulled up to her husband’s in-progress Native American funeral service at a farm near here on the night of April 12, 1953, with a hearse and a highway patrolman in tow, everybody knew something bad was about to happen.

What transpired, however, is perhaps unmatched in the history of American funeral proceedings.

She barged into the service and announced that her dead husband was “too cold.”

She ordered the coffin loaded into the hearse, then drove away, taillights disappearing into the darkness.

Over the next several months, she shopped the body around, looking for a memorial for him and cash for her. After alienating almost everyone, she wound up 1,340 miles away in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, asking two tiny boroughs straddling a bend in the Lehigh River — Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk — to unite under the name “Jim Thorpe” in exchange for his corpse.

It was macabre, it was bizarre, but the Chunks, once vacation getaways for U.S. presidents and the East Coast smart set, were desperate. Their coal-based fortunes had devolved into mid-century squalor. Civic leaders hoped the name change and a memorial might be their ticket back to prosperity.

With a parade, tooting horns and a marching band, they signed the deal, and today Jim Thorpe lies in a red marble mausoleum in Jim Thorpe, Pa.

This might be the end of the story, except for the fact that the four sons of Jim Thorpe never forgave and they never forgot.

They have asked, pleaded and two years ago sued in federal court to force the borough to right their stepmother’s wrong. They want to bury their father where he wanted: in or near the Thorpe family plot on the Great Plains of rural Oklahoma, about a mile from where he was born.

It is, to them and the Sac and Fox Nation, a fundamental human right for Native Americans to bury their people where they wish them to be buried.

Jim Thorpe, Pa., has politely but steadfastly refused to return the body.

“We lived up to our end of the bargain,” says Michael Sofranko, the mayor. “That’s about as American as you can get.”

As the years have passed and the shadows have lengthened, the sons’ quest has taken on a Homeric aura, as if lifted from the pages of “The Odyssey.” It has lasted 59 years, through 11 presidential administrations, Vietnam, Watergate, the civil rights movement, Reaganism, the collapse of the Soviet empire, Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid, the birth of the Internet and the entire life span of Barack Obama.

Their lawsuit may have, at last, brought them to the brink of victory.

“I’ve got nothing against the town,” said Richard Thorpe, one of two surviving Thorpe children. He is sitting in a truck stop diner in Waurika, Okla., on a recent Sunday afternoon. He’s a thin, wiry man, sporting a Chevy gimme cap, an NFL Hall of Fame jacket and a countenance that shows all of his 79 years.

Outside, there is brilliant sunshine, a hard wind and miles and miles and miles of rolling prairie. This time of year, it’s all brown: brown grass, brown trees, brown dust blown up by the tractor-trailers breezing by on Highway 70.

“But we want Dad back here in Indian Country. We want to finish that funeral.”

One hundred years ago, the Sac and Foxathlete Wa-tha-sko-huk, a.k.a. Light After the Lightning, a.k.a. Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe, became an American Colossus. He has stood astride that pedestal ever since — the most famous Native American of the 20th century, perhaps the greatest athlete the continent has ever produced. At this remove, he almost seems more akin to the mythical John Henry and Paul Bunyan than contemporaries Babe Ruth and Bronko Nagurski.

In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, he won the decathlon and the pentathlon, a feat never duplicated. His scores in the combined 15 events were off the charts. He set records that took decades to break.

Sweden’s King Gustav V presented him the gold medals and said, in awe, “You, sir, are the most wonderful athlete in the world.”

People tend to splutter when trying to describe Thorpe’s athletic ability. It’s a little like trying to quantify Beethoven’s musical genius or Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic skill. But let’s look at one small example, Thorpe’s performance in the final of the decathlon’s 10 events, the 1,500 meters.

His winning time was 4:40, which is running 12 miles an hour for five minutes — try it on your treadmill — but let’s talk to the world’s current greatest athlete, Bryan Clay, to put that in an athlete’s perspective.

Clay won the gold medal in the decathlon in the 2008 Olympics and the silver in 2004. He is primed to go again this summer in London. Texas-born, Hawaii-raised, Clay is a monster, a freak, an athletic marvel.

He trains six to eight hours a day with the most sophisticated equipment, coaches and dietary nourishment science can offer. The 1,500 meters isn’t his best event, he says, and other decathletes have run it much faster. “It’s a beast, it’s brutal, it comes after nine other events in two days.”

But if Bryan Clay ran his all-time best, at the peak of his world-champion powers, he would beat Thorpe by one second.

It’s fair to note here that Thorpe was running in mismatched shoes (see cover photo). Someone had taken his just before the competition, and he had to hustle up two different shoes to make an ungainly pair.

Yet, this is only a fraction of his legend.

Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing about 185, he played college football at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He was by far the nation’s best player and led his team to unofficial national titles.

A halfback, he would amuse himself by calling out to the defense where he was going to run, then plow over the massed defenders anyway. During halftimes, he sometimes entertained crowds by drop-kicking a football 50 yards over one goal post, then turning around and drop-kicking another 50 yards over the opposite goal post.

He was the star who almost single-handedly created professional football. He was the first president of what became the National Football League. (The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio, because of Thorpe’s championship career with the Canton Bulldogs.)

During this period, he played pro baseball for six years.

In 1950, sportswriters overwhelmingly named him the nation’s greatest athlete of the half-century. In second place — drawing barely a third of ­Thorpe’s first-place votes — was Babe Ruth.

Pause right there. More than 300 sportswriters, many of whom would have seen both men perform, held that Babe Ruth — the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the man who hit more home runs than someteams in some years, the greatest baseball player in history — drew 86 first-place votes. Thorpe got 252.

“Thorpe,” Clay says, “did things that were just insane.”

* * *

The man’s personal life was mortal, messy and sad.

Born on the remote Sac and Fox reservation in 1887 (often incorrectly reported as 1888), three years before the massacre at Wounded Knee put a bloody end to the Indian wars, he was five-eighths Indian and endured a lifetime of racist slights and insults.

His twin brother died when he was 9. His mother died when he was 14. His father died when he was 16.

He was stripped of his Olympic medals in 1913 for having played semi-pro baseball before the 1912 Games, a ticky-tack violation of his amateur status. (The medals were posthumously returned in 1982.)

Pro football paid a pittance, so he never accrued much wealth. When he did make money, he shared it with friends or squandered it. His first-born child, Jim Jr., died in his arms at 3, a blow friends said hobbled him for the rest of his life. He divorced, remarried, divorced and remarried. Hollywood god Burt Lancaster played him in a biopic, but even that did not revive his fortunes.

Thorpe preferred to listen than talk. He was often away from his seven later-born children and distant even when present. He eventually drank to stunning excess (Thunderbird wine), failed to plan for the future and moved constantly, even after he retired from sports. He bounced from Oklahoma to New York to California to Michigan to Florida to Nevada and stops in between. He tried everything: football coach, security guard, ditch digger, house painter, car salesman, bar manager, Hollywood bit actor and public speaker.

His health worsened, his third marriage deteriorated. He was so itinerant at the end that he preferred living in a house trailer so he could move when the mood struck. He died of a heart attack in his trailer in Lomita, Calif., on March 28, 1953, poor if not impoverished.

He was 65, fat, bloated and misshapen. Thorpe biographer Kate Buford writes that Patsy left the body in the trailer overnight. Friends transported him to a morgue, then arranged (and paid for) the trip back home to Oklahoma.

Buford spent eight years working on her seminal biography, “Native American Son,” published in 2010. She says she was moved by Thorpe’s generosity, his warmth, his genuine nature and his refusal to act like the egotistical, self-entitled athletes of the modern era.

“He wasn’t a complicated man,” she says, “but what happened to him was.”

Thorpe had three daughters from his first marriage, Charlotte, Grace and Gail; and four sons from his second, Carl, Bill, Richard and Jack.

Though Patsy was technically in charge, the entire family voted to take him home for burial, as was his wish. The plan was that he would be given a Sac and Fox traditional rite, then a Catholic Mass, then be held in a mausoleum until the state of Oklahoma could finalize plans for a memorial. Gov. Johnston Murray set up a memorial commission.

“Patsy was all on board with it at the time,” says Bill Thorpe, now 83 and a retired aircraft factory worker in Arlington, Tex.

The site of the memorial wasn’t determined, but the burial would likely be in the family plot in the Garden Grove Cemetery, about a mile from the old homeplace, surrounded by prairie and cow pastures. Thorpe’s father, Hiram, lay in Row 2, near the shade of an overhanging tree. Thorpe’s twin, Charlie, lay beneath a small stone obelisk reading “SON.” Sister Mary was buried a few feet away.

To Jim Thorpe’s children, this was their father’s native earth. He was as much a part of the place as rainwater. He was no international icon. He was just Dad.

Most of them were sent to Indian boarding schools, as was common at the time. But during his second marriage, when the boys were in California, Thorpe would roughhouse with them. “He would get under our bed and shake it, yelling, ‘Earthquake!’ Earthquake!’ ” Bill remembers, laughing. Thorpe took the boys hunting. He played catch in the yard. He got them bit parts in the movies he acted in, introducing them to Tom Mix and other celebrities.

The daughters stayed with their mother after the first divorce. “When I saw my father, it was a joyous moment and one that sufficed until the next meeting,” Charlotte told Bob Wheeler, author of “Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete.”

* * *

Once the coffin was back home, friends and family gathered in the evening for the Sac and Fox service. The Daily Oklahoman reported that cooking pots bubbled with “chicken, beef, deer meat, and corn.”

Thomas Brown, the tribal member officiating at the ceremony, knelt and prayed to the Great Spirit over a sacred fire a few feet from the coffin, tossing in flecks of tobacco. Friends told stories of the old days. The rite was to last until dawn, when Thorpe’s body would be carried through a door facing west, thus freeing his soul to the afterlife.

It was about 9 p.m. when Patsy burst in. She was white and didn’t care for her late husband’s Native American roots, Buford and other biographers have noted.

“We were just so astonished when she came in that nobody really said anything,” Bill remembers.

The children, sons and daughters alike, were mortified. To the tribe, removing the body was not only a cultural insult and an act of sacrilege, it also left Thorpe’s soul adrift.

There is no theology to explain exactly where his soul is now, says Henrietta Massey, an esteemed elder member of the tribe who was at the funeral. “Nothing like it had ever happened before,” she says, “and hasn’t happened since.”

Patsy went ahead with the Catholic service the following morning, then stored the body in a mausoleum, awaiting the state’s memorial. But later that summer, Gov. Murray vetoed the measure, citing budgetary straits.

Patsy was, by all accounts, furious. She was

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