The first body-snatching unfolded without a grave. Jim Thorpe wasn't in the ground yet when his widow, Patricia, pulled up to a home near Shawnee, Okla., on a March evening in 1953, during the second day of her husband's three-day burial ceremony by the Sac and Fox tribe. "We had just finished our meal, and there's Patsy," recalls Jim's son, Jack, now 73. "It was clear that she had made up her mind." Jim's third wife arrived with a police car and a hearse. Legally, no one could stop Patricia—who, as Jack says, "didn't think about Indian culture, didn't care about it, either"—when she took Thorpe's body in mid-ritual and had it placed in a crypt a few miles away. It was a rental tomb. "She put it in the papers that he died a penniless alcoholic," says Jack, whose father was earning money making speeches until his death. "She started shopping him around."
Patricia found a taker. Drive along U.S. Route 209 into a cleave of the Poconos along the Lehigh River until the road spills into a quaint village that looks lifted from a Lionel train set. Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, is almost too precious to be real. A vintage caboose sits on the tracks next to a red-brick depot. Firemen are hanging banners over streets lined with Victorian houses to announce Independence Day festivities. Andy and Toni's Food Cart in the park across from the train station is busy with children taking their pick of bagged gumdrops, Bit-O-Honeys and Mary Janes. "We have all the old-fashioned candies," says Toni Mowery, who works with Andy Yurchak, owner of the cart for 22 years. "Andy's over there relaxing," says Toni with a smile. Yurchak is sitting on a park bench—freshly painted, of course. "Nice place to live, isn't it?" he says.
Not a bad place to be dead, either. The town was known as Mauch Chuck when Patricia made a deal in 1954. Thorpe had never set foot in the riverside hamlet—his All-American rise occurred two hours away in Carlisle, Pa.—but that didn't matter. Patricia saw a hangdog town looking for an identity, searching for a tourist attraction, and sold it the body. The price of the transaction is a mystery ($25,000 is the most popular figure), but the written agreement expressly stipulated this: The town could keep Thorpe's bones in a mausoleum as long as the town was named Jim Thorpe, Pa. And it is.
A sedan-sized granite tomb carved with images of Thorpe as a 1912 Olympian, a pro football player and pro baseball player is the centerpiece of a roadside memorial in a clearing of cedars on a hill above the town. Here lies Jim Thorpe. For now, anyway. On June 24 Jack Thorpe, citing a federal law that allows tribes the right to protect Native American gravesites, filed a lawsuit against the town in federal court in Scranton to return his father's remains to Oklahoma. "We never finished the burial," says Jack. "It's not the fault of the town—they're good people—but my father hasn't been put at peace." Why now? Jack says he waited until his last half sibling died to avoid a family conflict. There is tension, though, in the town named for the greatest athlete of the 20th century. "When no one wanted him," says Yurchak, "when everyone was stereotyping him as a drunken Indian, this town took in Jim Thorpe and gave him dignity."
The memorial site on the hill is serene—not a single souvenir shop pushing Thorpe coffee mugs or pencil sharpeners—with a sculpture garden that displays all Thorpe's achievements in five glass-encased posters. Two visitors, Leslie and Rick Wilson from Bethlehem, Pa., absorbed the historic scene, checked out the bronze statue of Thorpe and, says Leslie, came away "amazed at how he persevered." Thorpe endured racism (including Indian slurs from sportswriters) and humiliation (the two Olympic gold medals stripped from him for playing pro baseball weren't restored until 30 years after his death). "This is a chance to right another wrong," says Jack, the former chief of the Sac and Fox tribe and an advocate for Indian rights. "I want to bring my father home."
But what's Jim Thorpe (pop. 4,878) without Jim Thorpe? The town leaders will fight the suit, and whatever the outcome the name will remain the same. "I'd like to see [Thorpe] stay here," says Carbon County commissioner Wayne Nothstein. "So much has been done to honor him. But no matter what, the pride in this town won't change."
The town's identity is greater than the remains of an American icon. People flock to Jim Thorpe for the antique trains and Victorian houses and river rafting. Fifty years ago it needed Thorpe. Now Thorpe is needed elsewhere. If he is shipped to Shawnee, the freight will also carry hope. Hope for establishing the Jim Thorpe Legacy Center, a nonprofit community facility that the Thorpe family is developing. Hope for Native American children to succeed as athletes. "We lose great athletes to discrimination and self-doubt," says Jack, noting how colleges hardly recruit on the reservations. "There are few pro Indian athletes to look up to in our society. The center would help with funding and support."
Maybe a dead champion can be in two places at once. As you leave the town of Jim Thorpe, there is a billboard by Values.com on a hillside with a black-and-white photo of a square-jawed Thorpe. He has a slight smile and a leather helmet on his head. Words border the image: ALL-AMERICA. NATIVE AMERICAN. EXCELLENCE: PASS IT ON. Maybe it's time for Jim Thorpe, Pa., to pass him on—the body, not the spirit. The soul of the town will remain.
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"It's not the fault of the town—they're good people," says Jack Thorpe about Jim Thorpe, Pa., "but my father hasn't been put at peace."