Although the Native American Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe never walked in the town that now bears his name, he did play professional sports in the surrounding Mid-Atlantic towns.
At least one time, he visited the Lehigh Valley, and there's a living witness to that.
"Jim Thorpe shook my hand," said Jim Remaley, 88, of Lehighton, who remembers the day as if it was yesterday. "Jim Thorpe's hands were big and rough. They seemed three times as large as mine."
That day, Nov. 20, 1941, was a memorable one for the former track star. It was then that five members of the Muhlenberg College cross-county track team received varsity letters. At the college, a former co-captain won eight letters, including the quarter mile, half mile, mile, two-mile and cross-country. He also teamed to set a school record in the one-mile relay.
To properly honor these school sports heroes, Dean of Freshmen Harry "Haps" Benfer invited his friend, Jim Thorpe, to present the letters. They had become friends when Benfer's football team, Albright College in Reading, played against Thorpe's Carlisle Indians.
Thorpe made no public remarks, but as he handed Remaley his letter, he said, "I don't like to be a speaker but I like to talk to people."
In 1982, Times News reporter Joe Boyle interviewed Remaley, and wrote, "The Lehightonian also recalls how Thorpe, to some degree, had his own particular way of expressing himself in 'broken English' and very short sentences. And when Jim Thorpe shook hands with you, you knew immediately he was possessed of great physical strength in his large and strong hands."
Boyle was a driving force in acquiring Jim Thorpe's body and merging of the Towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk into the borough of Jim Thorpe.
Within days of Remaley receiving his letter, the world changed. On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. was at war. To continue schooling, young men were required to sign-up for military service. Remaley joined the Navy.
After graduating in 1944 with a BS degree in Biochemistry, Remaley was inducted into the Navy. Building upon his pre-med training, Remaley was assigned to train as a corpsman. Then he took courses to become a certified medical lab technician.
Remaley was assigned to the medical lab on the USS Puget Sound, an aircraft carrier that served in Guam, the Philippines, China, Japan and Hawaii. During the war, as remembers dressing an injured shipmate's leg wound.
"We hit something or something hit us and I was thrown against a bulkhead," he recalled. "My nose was broken and several teeth were knocked out. It left me with hearing problems."
With his nose broken, Remaley's running career ended. After being discharged from the Navy in 1946, he worked for a year at the Rahway Memorial Hospital before opening his own business, the Remaley Medical Laboratory in Lehighton.
Remaley introduced mail-in blood testing.
"I bought containers and gave them to the doctors I visited in Carbon, Schuylkill, Northampton and Lehigh Counties. I told them I was opening the laboratory, and that 'I'm only going to visit you one time,'" he said. "Here's my card. Here's a list of the tests I do. Here's a package of mailing tubes with postage already on. Send me the blood, I'll bill you once a month. There's a space to request the test, and a place to ask me to send more mailing tubes."
Remaley operated his laboratory for 37 years, until it closed in 1984. He found that the health care system was becoming disorganized. At one time, he was inspected and approved only by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Laboratories.
Over time, he had additional reviews by the Department of Health, Medicare and Medicaid. He sold what he could and gave the rest away to Palmerton Hospital.
Still running the distance in spirit if not on the track, Remaley returned to college, receiving a degree in education. He taught 10 years and was active in conservation activities over a 30-year period. In 1971, he was named Carbon County Conservationist of the Year.
Remaley grew up in Weissport. During the 20-minute recess time while in the seventh grade, he passed the time running two or three blocks. After transferring to Lehighton High School, he joined the cross country team.
He set a school record, once totalling 21 points at a single track meet. He received five points each for taking first place in the quarter mile, half mile and mile races, and three points each for placing second in the 100 and 200 meter events.