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In the dark

  • FILE PHOTO The bronze statue of Jim Thorpe is lowered onto a granite pedestal at the Jim Thorpe Memorial in the Borough of Jim Thorpe several years ago. A lawsuit threatens to remove Thorpe's remains to his family home in Oklahoma.
    FILE PHOTO The bronze statue of Jim Thorpe is lowered onto a granite pedestal at the Jim Thorpe Memorial in the Borough of Jim Thorpe several years ago. A lawsuit threatens to remove Thorpe's remains to his family home in Oklahoma.
Published November 16. 2009 05:00PM

What would the Borough of Jim Thorpe be without its namesake, the Olympian and Native American, Jim Thorpe?

It's a question on the mind of Jim Thorpe Borough Council President John McGuire ever since he was questioned about the possibility by a reporter from a Philadelphia newspaper.

Although the story was picked up and widely circulated by The Associated Press, some officials wonder whether it is a fact or a rumor promulgated by an overzealous reporter.

"No one has any information," said McGuire, who was quoted in the article for his response to a series of "what if" questions. "Neither our borough secretary nor our solicitor has any information."

The premise of the article was that a law firm was planning to file a law suit in federal court in Philadelphia to disinter Jim Thorpe's body so that it can be moved to the family burial ground in Oklahoma. The law suit is being drafted by Travis Willingham of Pickett & Grace, LLC of Kansas City, Missouri. Attorney Willingham is representing the three surviving children of Jim Thorpe, his sons Jack, Bill and Richard.

Although Willingham has publicly announced the suit, neither he nor Jack, Bill or Richard Thorpe have contacted the borough to discuss the matter.

That may be because Pickett & Grace have elected not to try to negotiate with the borough, but instead do an end run and file the suit in federal court.

"The legal theories are based on the American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act," attorney Willingham explained.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a United States federal law passed in 1990 requiring federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items and human remains to their respective peoples. The legal theory is that in receiving some federal funding, the borough falls under the umbrella of the act.

When contacted for this article, Jim Thorpe's grandson, Michael Koehler, the son of Thorpe's second of three daughters, Charlotte, said that he was unaware of the potential lawsuit.

Trying to understand and explain, Koehler said, "I know that Jack Thorpe and his brothers, more so than my two aunts Grace and Gale, adhere to the spiritual aspects of their Indian background."

"Jack is more an Indian than anyone else in the family," Koehler continued. "He was once the chief of the Sac and Fox tribe."

"Jack identifies with the spirituality of the Native Americans. He wants to return his father's body to his tribal resting ground in Oklahoma. He wants to perform an Indian ceremony in which tobacco is spilled into the grave because he feels, as do most who believe in Indian spirituality, that his spirit is still not satisfied it's roaming free and it needs to be back in Oklahoma and he wants his body back in the tribal ceremonial grounds.

"That's what Jack believes and fortunately or unfortunately, I'm not sure which, I don't tend to adhere to that," Koehler said. "I have felt all along that my grandfather has been well-served by the folks in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and I know that my Aunt Grace, my Aunt Gale and my mother, Charlotte although my mother never got into it as much as they did felt the same way."

Michael and Jack haven't spoken recently although they were both interviewed for the documentary "Jim Thorpe: The World's Greatest Athlete." The film, which is likely to benefit from the controversy, is scheduled to air this season on the Public Broadcasting Service.

They were interviewed separately, Jack Thorpe in Oklahoma, and Michael Koehler in Chicago.

"I think Jack does a really good job. That's as close as we've been," Koehler said.

Koehler, who was close with his aunt, Grace Thorpe, who died last year, had been selected by Grace to represent the family. Koehler is a 70-year-old retired college professor. Jack Thorpe, the youngest of the Thorpe children is two years older.

"I have gone on record pretty strongly," Koehler said. "I think the community has gone out of its way to honor my grandfather's name and to keep his name alive."

It is not clear why, after over half a century, Thorpe's sons are planning to formally fight to have his body returned. With Grace Thorpe's passing, the staunchest spokesperson for keeping Jim Thorpe's body in the Borough of Jim Thorpe is gone.

Koehler suggested, "Maybe he (Jack Thorpe) is sensing he doesn't have much time left and he wants to use that time to redress this grievance that he believes has been done to his family."

Attorney Willingham said that he has been talking with Thorpe's sons for several years. He noted that, "They have been making noise since the early 2000s concerning this issue."

"About every five years, it pops up," McGuire said.

McGuire foresees the issue becoming an unusually difficult problem for the borough to resolve.

"I can understand their point if that's their religious belief," McGuire said. "I work with people who are Native Americans. They ask me, why we're keeping him?

"I can see their point," McGuire continued. "But for me, this is something that the town voted on 55 years ago and I think if there's any action to be taken, I think the town has to vote on it again. The name of the town that's not just something the mayor or the council can just decide."

And then there is the issue of the cost to the borough of defending a lawsuit. Ironically, the quest to remove Thorpe's remains may prove more profitable to the borough than when Thorpe was originally buried there. When he was buried, the town expected to gain a hospital and athletic facilities, which never materialized.

With the prospect of the lawsuit, already one Philadelphia law firm has volunteered to handle the case pro bono. There is a possibility that fundraising to defend the lawsuit and the publicity surrounding it would could be economically beneficial for the borough.

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