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New Jim Thorpe museum opens - in Oklahoma City

  • On Nov. 17, Jim Thorpe's home state of Oklahoma opened the Jim Thorpe Museum - Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The 38,000-square-foot building was completed in April and includes a second floor banquet facility and an Oklahoma sports…
    On Nov. 17, Jim Thorpe's home state of Oklahoma opened the Jim Thorpe Museum - Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The 38,000-square-foot building was completed in April and includes a second floor banquet facility and an Oklahoma sports museum with 3,000-square- foot dedicated to Jim Thorpe.
Published December 19. 2009 09:00AM

It seems that these days just about every town is claiming Jim Thorpe as its own.

He's buried in East Jim Thorpe in a park dedicated to his memory. In Jim Thorpe's Historic District, the Mauch Chunk Museum has an exhibit on Jim Thorpe.

There are also exhibits honoring him in Haskell, Kan., where he briefly attended school, and at Carlisle, where he starred in track and field, football and baseball while attending the Indian school. There are markers near where he was born in Prague, Okla., and the home he lived in with his first wife, Iva, in Yale, Okla. is open for visitors.

He played professionally for Canton, Cleveland, LaRue, Rock Island, New York, Tampa, Chicago, Boston and Cincinnati. Each town and each state where he lived or played, honors Jim Thorpe in its own way.

On Nov. 17, Jim Thorpe's home state opened the Jim Thorpe Museum, Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The 38,000-square-foot building was completed in April. It includes a second floor banquet facility and a 10,000-square-foott Oklahoma sports museum which includes 3,000 square feet dedicated to Jim Thorpe.

"The Jim Thorpe Museum is set up to look at the history of Jim Thorpe both as an individual and as an athlete," said museum director Justin Lenhart. "It also focuses on some activities of the Jim Thorpe Association."

The Association provides awards and scholarships, and supports educational activities.

The museum's central gallery is the Hall of Champions.

"We have 122 members in the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame," Lenhart explained. "Everybody associated with the state of Oklahoma including individuals that went to college here, lived here, or retired here. It covers the gamut of athletics: women's golf, mens and women's track, field, basketball, coaches, media figures, sports reporters, and wrestling. Athletes could be from high school, college or professionals."

"Right now, in the Jim Thorpe Museum, we have on display the original letters from Carlisle that Jim Thorpe earned in baseball, track and football," Lenhart added. "There are reproductions of medals that he won while he was at Carlisle, and certificates when he was inducted into Carlisle.

"An exhibit focuses on his Olympics. We have the original parchments he received for participating in the Olympics. Back in the day, they handed out a parchment for each discipline that you participated in. They were never rescinded as were his medals. Those remained in his possession until his death."

On exhibit at the museum is a medal handed out by the state of Pennsylvania to athletes in the Olympics from Pennsylvania.

"There were a couple from Carlisle," Lenhart noted. "A display explains why the AAU ruled him ineligible and stripped him of his amateur status, and another display is on his professional careers in baseball and football."

The Jim Thorpe Association was established in 1986 at a time when Oklahoma City businessmen were looking to create some positive mojo during a downturn in the oil business.

"There was never an award for a defensive back in college football and college football awards were coming onto the scene," Lenhart explained.

"It's grown over the years," he continued. "We now run intercity track meets; in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, we sponsor all-state games. We have an ArtsFest where art supplies are shipped out to elementary schools across the state, and hold an essay contest on what it means to be drug-free, plus scholarships and awards for track athlete-of-the-year."

The Sports Hall of Fame was also created in 1986. In 1989, the Sports Hall of Fame and the Jim Thorpe Association merged with a shared long-term goal of starting a museum.

In 2007, the organization received a one-million dollar grant from the Oklahoma Centennial Commission, and a half-million dollar grant from Oklahoma City as part of the Lincoln Boulevard beautification program. With some federal funding, and with corporate, foundation and private donations, they purchased and renovated the museum building.

Lenhart was hired to curate the museum in Nov. 2008.

"It's been a unique project for me," he said. "I've never done a museum from the ground up."

Besides supervising the renovations, Lenhart had to organize the organization's archives.

"The collection was thrown together ad hoc," he said. "Some things were in bad shape. Many items required rehabilitation. Proper storage had to be installed."

When asked what Jim Thorpe means to Oklahoma, Lenhart said that is an interesting question.

"It depends on how old is the person you are asking," he said. "It is a name and an individual that is held in high esteem in Oklahoma. He has been used by political people as a positive force and a role model for local pride, and a Native American tie."

"Jim Thorpe is a face of Oklahoma," Lenhart continued. "His athletic achievements are unparalleled. Historically (he's) a big figure, but I have family and friends younger than me who don't know who he is or what he did."

The Jim Thorpe Museum of the Jim Thorpe Association and the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame is located at 4040 N. Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City, OK 73105, 405-427-1400,

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