The Twisted Path To Lay A Legend To Rest

Nearly sixty years ago, a Pennsylvania town renamed itself after legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe. How he came to be buried there is a tale of messy family business that continues to this day. Washington Post staff writer Neely Tucker joins host Michel Martin to discuss the story of the man once known as the "World's Greatest Athlete."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. And today we have a story about the legendary athlete Jim Thorpe.

People today may only know that name from the town in the Poconos that is his last resting place and they may assume that the town chose to rename itself after a famous native son who went on to Olympic athletic glory, but they'd be wrong. Jim Thorpe never set foot in the town named after him while he was alive. How he came to be buried there is a tale of messy family business and a culture clash that continues to this day.

Washington Post staff writer Neely Tucker is with us now to unpack this complicated and frankly heartbreaking story. Neely Tucker, thanks so much for joining us.

NEELY TUCKER: Sure. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: People today may not remember Jim Thorpe, but he is widely considered by many people to be the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Why do people say that?

TUCKER: Because he virtually created professional football and was widely regarded as the greatest track and field athlete as well in the first half of the 20th century. One measure of this is in 1950 sportswriters were asked to name the greatest athlete of the half century. Babe Ruth, who many people would think would be that today, got 86 votes. Jim Thorpe got 252.

MARTIN: You say in the piece he won the gold medal in the decathlon and the pentathlon during the 1912 Olympics, and, of course, as you said, went on to play pro football and baseball. But during his funeral, which was in Oklahoma - and I think it's important to mention here that he was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, the funeral was disrupted - and then what happened?

TUCKER: His wife, who was not Native American, walked in and said - basically took the body out of the funeral during the middle of this night long Sac and Fox service. Well, that was very important to the Sac and Fox because, as they see it, until that ceremony is completed, the spirit can never be at rest. She wanted to bury him somewhere else and she wanted the state of Oklahoma to build him a proper memorial.

When they didn't build him a memorial, she took him shopping, more or less.

MARTIN: How did his remains happen to end up in Pennsylvania, in the Poconos?

TUCKER: Patsy Thorpe was a very difficult individual, by all accounts. She wanted a memorial for her husband and she wanted to be paid for that privilege. She was his third wife now. Things are, remember, a little complicated. Jim Thorpe had seven children, none of them by Patsy. She disregarded what all of the children wanted and she cut a deal with a little tourist town called Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk - tourist towns, I should say - in eastern Pennsylvania and made them the deal that if you rename yourselves after my husband and build him a memorial, you can have him.

MARTIN: What's the memorial like? I mean, you've been there.

TUCKER: It's right by the side of the road. There's a semi-circular drive, about a six foot high red marble mausoleum and there's two really nice statues of him out there, one throwing a discus, the other one running a football. You know, it's nice and it's very simple.

The Thorpe family plot in Oklahoma is, you know, very somber. It's in a remote part of the state. It's a mile from where he grew up, so this is something he would have seen almost every day of his life growing up.

MARTIN: If you just joined us, I'm speaking with writer Neely Tucker. His story, "A Grave Concern," was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine. It's about the battle over Jim Thorpe's remains.

One of the things that I learned from your piece which I did not know is that the children didn't just leave it there. They've been trying for 60 years to change this, to get their father's remains back to Oklahoma.

TUCKER: It has to be the longest interrupted funeral in American history.

MARTIN: And you know, it's interesting that in 2010 Jim Thorpe's oldest son, Jack, did an interview with NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and we found that and we'll just play a short clip from what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK THORPE: I have nothing against Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. They're a wonderful group of people, but I've stated before and I'll state it again: The bones of my father will not make or break that town. It's the people in that town. They could still continue to have the name. That's a wonderful honor, but it's just the remains of our father. We wanted to bring him home and finish up helping put him - put him away properly and put him away where he wanted to be.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that, Neely? Why is it so important to - not just his descendents - his surviving descendents - and they are a dwindling number, but also other members of the Sac and Fox Nation, that his remains be returned to Oklahoma? Can you talk a little bit about that?

TUCKER: There were, during the latter half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, somewhere on the order of 160 to 200,000 bodies of Native Americans who were dug up, their graves were looted and their bodies were taken to museums or to science exhibits for studies at the time. Obviously this couldn't stand. It's incredibly offensive to Native Americans, and in 1990 Congress passed a law called the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act that pretty much established a very simple procedure.

They said if you're a museum and you have the body of a Native American, and a member of the tribe or a member of that family asks for it back, you have to return it.

MARTIN: Well, that would seem clear. So what does the town say?

TUCKER: The town says a deal's a deal and they signed a deal with Patsy Thorpe, who was Jim Thorpe's legal next of kin at the time, that says we get his body if we rename our town. They did. And the only way, in that contract, they can ever lose the body is if they don't call themselves Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. So they say we've lived up to our end of the deal. In fact, we've done a great deal more by adding statues and some other things.

The high school team there - the mascot - is the Olympians, named after Thorpe. So they say, look, we really feel sorry that there has been a family squabble, but we had a contract. We signed it. We've lived up to it.

MARTIN: So as I understand it, there is now a legal case based on the Repatriation Act. You know, that's going forward, but the case seems to be outlasting all of the descendents. I mean I have to note that Jack, the oldest son who we just heard from, passed away last year. He's now buried in the plot where he was hoping to see his father laid to rest. The remaining sons, the surviving sons, are 79 and 83. What happens next here? What do you think is going to happen?

TUCKER: The law seems to be on the sides of the sons. That seems to be pretty clear. Time seems to be on the side of Jim Thorpe, PA. It's not at all clear what happens if the two remaining sons pass away, although the tribe is also a member of the case and they say we want him brought back home. They're not the next of kin under that law. It would still be the family, so if Bill Thorpe or Richard Thorpe pass away while this case is still being litigated, it's just not clear what would happen next.

MARTIN: What did you walk away from this piece feeling, by the way? It's a very - it is the kind of thing where, you know, I'm sure people who live in that area have passed by the place. People who live there, a million times, probably never thought about the story, you know, that led to it being, you know, what it is. And you can see where some people think it is a great honor to have a town named after you, even if you didn't grow up there.

And after sort of living with both sides of the story and people who have such strong feelings about it, all in good faith, what do you come away with?

TUCKER: The most immediate emotional connection I had to the story was two sons who are still left alive saying all we want is our father's body back. May we please have our father back? That seems to me to trump just about everything.

On the other side, you have the mayor, who's a very nice guy and a very reasonable person, saying, look, this family got divided on this issue. We didn't come seeking them. They came to us, and we have invested, for 60 years, our time, our energy, a good deal of money. We have a parade every year in the man's honor. We've changed the name of the high school mascot. I think both of those are really valid points of view.

MARTIN: Neely Tucker is a writer for the Washington Post. His story, "A Grave Concern," was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine, and he was kind enough to join us from the studios at the Washington Post.

Neely Tucker, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TUCKER: Thanks for having me.

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