Jim Thorpe hall to unveil 2nd statue of namesake

By Genaro C. Armas
State College, Pennsylvania (AP) May 2011

A new statue of sports great Jim Thorpe is going up in the eastern Pennsylvania town that bears his name, while two of Thorpe’s sons have joined a federal lawsuit demanding his remains be returned to Oklahoma.

The recent developments regarding Thorpe, winner of the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics, don’t appear to be related. The statue to be unveiled May 21 at Jim Thorpe’s burial site by the Jim Thorpe Area Sports Hall of Fame has been in the works for years, hall president Jack Kmetz said.

Thorpe’s son, John Thorpe, filed suit last June to get his father’s remains returned to his native Oklahoma under a federal law designed to give Native American artifacts back to the their tribal homelands. John Thorpe died in February, but two brothers, Richard and Bill Thorpe, joined as plaintiffs last week, as did the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.

Jim Thorpe was a member of the tribe, while John Thorpe was a past chief.

Thorpe overcame humble roots to succeed in the Olympics and go on to professional careers in baseball and football. Thorpe finished third in the AP’s athlete of the 20th century poll, behind Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan. He was named the AP’s greatest athlete of the half-century in 1950.

Thorpe became well-known during the 1912 Olympics in Sweden, when his track titles led King Gustav V to declare, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” The 24-year-old Thorpe replied: “Thanks, King.”

The medals were rescinded a year later over concerns Thorpe had played some semi-professional baseball. But the family had them restored posthumously in 1982.

He went on to become a B-list Hollywood actor, often playing the Indian in movies, then struggled financially before his death in March 1953 in California at the age of 64.

Thorpe’s remains were taken to Oklahoma for burial near his birthplace, but Thorpe’s third wife struck an unusual deal intended to draw more tourists with leaders of the merging towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pa. The community was to be renamed Jim Thorpe and his remains moved to Pennsylvania.

Thorpe’s body now rests beneath a monument outside of the town that bears his name in the Pocono Mountains, a community he likely never visited.

Kmetz and other Jim Thorpe-area residents remain steadfast in promoting his legacy.

The hall of fame was formed in 1989 “to perpetuate the memory of Jim Thorpe, to honor our local athletes” and support youth athletic programs in the community, Kmetz said in a statement promoting the May 21 statue unveiling. “One of our stated goals was to build an appropriate memorial to the athlete after whom our town was named.”

Among the guests expected to attend are Michael Koehler, Thorpe’s eldest grandchild.

“This guy isn’t your average local high school competitor,” Kmetz told The Associated Press in describing Thorpe.

Stephen Ward, the lawyer for Thorpe’s sons and the Sac and Fox tribe, said his clients have no plans to drop the suit despite John Thorpe’s death on Feb. 22 at age 73.

U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo had ruled nearly three weeks earlier that brothers Richard and Bill Thorpe, as well as the Sac and Fox tribe, were “legally necessary” in order for the suit to proceed. All three brothers had long supported bringing Thorpe’s remains back to Oklahoma, though it was decided to let Jack Thorpe take the lead, Ward said.

But even before the ruling, the brothers and the tribe were considering joining the case, Ward and a tribe official, Sandra Massey, said in separate phone interviews. They were formally added as plaintiffs in a May 2 federal court filing.

“The transition was in progress anyway,” Ward said, though Jack Thorpe’s death came unexpectedly.