NPR logo

A Fight For Jim Thorpe's Body

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Fight For Jim Thorpe's Body

Around the Nation

A Fight For Jim Thorpe's Body

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


His name is synonymous with greatness in American sports. And he was portrayed in this 1951 Burt Lancaster film.

(Soundbite of film "Jim Thorpe All-American")

Unidentified Man #1: Jim Thorpe, All-American, the man of bronze who became the greatest athlete of all time.

INSKEEP: Native American sports star Jim Thorpe was born in Oklahoma. He went on to become a two-time Olympic gold medalist and NFL Hall of Famer before dying of a heart attack in 1953.

Now his family and a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania are locked in the battle over his remains. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG: Jim Thorpe's body was laid to rest in town more than half a century ago. But his legacy still lives on in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Group: Begin - O-L-Y...

WANG: Just listen to a practice of the Jim Thorpe Area High School football team, named in honor of�his achievements at the 1912 Olympics.

Group: Olympians, Olympians.

Unidentified Man #2: Jim Thorpe pride on three.

Group: One, two, three, Jim Thorpe pride.

Mr. JACK KMETZ (President, Jim Thorpe Area Sports Hall of Fame): This is not your average high school varsity letter winner laying here. This is an international icon.

WANG: That's Jack Kmetz, president of the Jim Thorpe Area Sports Hall of Fame and lifelong resident of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Mr. KMETZ: This guy has a whole town named after him. He has a school named after him. He has a bank named after him. He has a post office. He has his own zip code.

WANG: Jim Thorpe never visited the town named after him. So how did the Oklahoma native end up buried in the Keystone State? It all started after Thorpe's death when his widow offered local town officials an unusual deal.

Mr. KMETZ: The community of Jim Thorpe, we, we have a signed contract by his widow. We have the rights to possession of this body.

WANG: In return, two small neighboring towns consolidated into one, renamed themselves Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania and agreed to build a public shrine for the famous athlete. Local residents admit their town's founding makes for an odd story. Both the coal and rail industries had abandoned the area. And the arrival of Jim Thorpe's body was seen as a sign of hope for the local economy.�

As for Thorpe's widow, she wanted more than just a simple burial for her husband. She wanted a town that would erect a memorial and capitalize on Thorpe's popularity. It was a plan that Thorpe's eldest living son William says he never supported.�

Mr. WILLIAM THORPE: If your dad turned around and said, hey, I want to be cremated and my ashes put somewhere, I mean, you would abide by it, wouldn't you?

WANG: William Thorpe says he and his brothers have waited for decades to resolve a family dispute over where their father should be buried.

Mr. WILLIAM THORPE: Dad's wish was that he be buried in Oklahoma, and that's what we're trying to accomplish.

WANG: Thorpe and his brother Richard, the only two surviving children of Jim Thorpe, are suing the town for possession of their father's remains.

(Soundbite of engines)

A steady stream of cars and motorcycles drive by Jim Thorpe's memorial along Pennsylvania Route 903. Thorpe's rose-colored granite tomb sits on a grassy field, where two larger-than-life bronze statues of Thorpe holding a football and discus also stand guard.

Jack Kmetz stands behind the tomb, surveying the memorial site with the attention of a devoted caretaker.�He spots a minivan of out-of-towners turning off the driveway around Thorpe's tomb.

Mr. KMETZ: Yeah, just drive on the grass. That's what you call a lack of respect. Maybe somebody will drive on their grave one day.

WANG: Kmetz admits Jim Thorpe has not brought the droves of tourists needed to spur the local economy. But Kmetz says he has given the town of Jim Thorpe its identity and a point of pride.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.