By JOHN BRANCH
Published: July 24, 2010
POTTAWATOMIE COUNTY, Okla. — The northeast corner of Garden Grove Cemetery is a crowded one. But Jack Thorpe, the 73-year-old son of Jim Thorpe, sees room for at least one more.
“More than likely, Dad will end up right here,” Thorpe said. He pointed to a plot-size patch between a short chain-link fence and an unmarked rectangle of crumbling red brick. A step away was an undated stone the size of a shoebox lid reading, simply, “SON.”
Jack Thorpe, the man suing Jim Thorpe, Pa., for his father’s remains, stepped out of the oppressive midday sun and into the shade of a scraggly oak. He took a drag from his cigarette. Beads of sweat slid down his cheeks. Birds chattered somewhere in the bushes. Jim Thorpe’s father and a sister and a brother and more than a dozen other relatives are buried here, beneath the baking, sandy soil and the thin grass.
There is no town nearby, just a crossroads without street signs. A mile down a dirt road that was nothing more than a wagon trail when Jim Thorpe was a boy, a granite marker stands as tall and sturdy as the man it honors.
“Birth site of Jim Thorpe,” it reads.
Jack Thorpe pointed downhill toward a stand of trees. That is where the one-room log house stood. That is where a blacksmith, a Sac and Fox Indian named Hiram Thorpe, forged a family, including a boy who became the world’s greatest athlete — the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon gold medalist, a Hall of Fame football player, a major league baseball player.
Thorpe, whose veins also held Potawatomi blood from his mother’s side, remains a hero to Americans, native and otherwise — a man whose life story is part of the curriculum at schools in Oklahoma and whose name adorns buildings, highways and hospitals in what used to be Indian Territory.
“I want to see him put away properly,” Jack Thorpe said. “I want to put him where he wanted to be.”
Until then, Jim Thorpe remains far from home. He very likely never visited the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, straddling the Lehigh River in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. But months after Thorpe died in 1953 at age 64, his third wife, Patricia, struck a deal.
Build a monument and care for the remains, and a nifty roadside attraction and Jim Thorpe’s name for the merged towns are yours. And so it has been, for more than 50 years.
And now, Thorpe versus Thorpe.
“I don’t have anything against Jim Thorpe, Pa.,” Jack Thorpe said. “But some things are not for sale.”
Jack Thorpe waited long enough. He waited for Jim Thorpe the town to volunteer Jim Thorpe’s remains. He waited for Patricia to die, which she did in 1974. He waited for his three half-sisters to die, too, because they had differing views on their father’s final resting place and Thorpe “didn’t want to iron this out in public.” Grace, the most adamant about letting their father be, was the last to die, in 2008 at 86.
In June, with the backing of his two surviving brothers, Jack Thorpe sued the town of Jim Thorpe in United States District Court. Citing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, the suit contends that Jack Thorpe, as a lineal descendant, has legal claim to his father’s remains.
No trial date has been set. And the town of Jim Thorpe, which slowly rebuilt itself as a tourist center with perhaps a little nudge from the dignified memorial and mausoleum for its namesake, is debating how to proceed.
“I can see the point of both sides,” said Kate Buford, the author of “Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe,” to be published in October. “It’s a really difficult issue.”
She said that the town had honored Thorpe’s memory “very well and very sincerely.”
Jack Thorpe said that could continue.
“We’re not trying to get them to change the name of the town,” said Travis Willingham, the lawyer handling the case for Jack Thorpe. “We just want the body back. I would hope we could work this out.”