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Stay put, Wa-Tho-Huck

Published August 14. 2010 09:00AM

On Memorial Day in 1957, I played my clarinet in the Jim Thorpe High School band. This was not a typical Memorial Day parade. It was a parade to honor Jim Thorpe, the All-American Olympic athlete whose name our town had taken a few years before. Jim's Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huck, which means Bright Path.

On that Memorial Day, the townspeople of Jim Thorpe dedicated a $10,000 mausoleum that contained the remains of Jim Thorpe. The high school band led the parade up North Street amid thousands of onlookers who had come to witness the event.

Great care was taken to inter Jim's body with dignity and purpose. Around the site, samples of earth from places significant to Jim's life were scattered. Dirt from the Oklahoma farmland where Jim was born, the Indian Field at Carlisle Indian School, the Polo Grounds in New York, and from the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden was scattered there.

The mausoleum itself is quite a beautiful sight. Made of red granite, it is engraved with a proper epitaph - "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world" - a quote from King Gustav of Sweden at the 1912 Olympic games. On all four sides of the crypt are etchings depicting Jim's Indian heritage and his athletic career.

The Jim Thorpe Mausoleum has resided on a peaceful hillside for the last half a century. One might think that Jim's bones are permanently settled in an area that honors his life. No such luck.

Relatives of Jim Thorpe have decided that they want his body exhumed and flown back to Oklahoma so that he can be buried with his family on Indian land.

Perhaps some history is in order. How did Jim Thorpe get buried in a small Pennsylvania town that Jim himself never saw? Why would two small towns (Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk - the words "Mauch Chunk" mean "Bear Mountain" in Indian language) agree to merge and change the name to "Jim Thorpe, PA"?

Well, apparently, when Jim died in March 1953, initial plans were to bury him in Shawnee, OK. Jim's wife agreed to this. However, plans went awry when money could not be raised to build a memorial. The Governor of Oklahoma vetoed a bill to provide the funds for the burial. Mrs. Thorpe then began to seek a different burial site for Jim.

On a visit to Philadelphia, Mrs. Thorpe saw a story on TV about two small towns in the coal region of PA that were struggling to bring industry to their area. The towns - Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk - had started a "Nickel-a-Week" plan. Each resident would donate a nickel a week to the fund. Mrs. Thorpe was impressed with the fighting spirit of the towns. It reminded her of Jim's fighting spirit.

To make a long story short, the townspeople of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk voted to change the name to "Jim Thorpe" and provide a burial site for a memorial and mausoleum. The two towns did this with faith in the future and a hope that - as one borough - good things would happen.

Generations of young people have been raised in Jim Thorpe, PA and have developed pride in the knowledge that their town honors one of the greatest athletes of all time. There has never been any commercialization of the burial slot - no hawking of souvenirs, no gaudy displays. Jim rests in peace and quiet. Visitors are always impressed with the beauty of the burial site. Local volunteers consider it an honor to help maintain the site and vandalism does not occur there.

What would happen if Jim Thorpe's body is removed and taken to Oklahoma? I honestly believe there would be no earth-shaking effect. After all, the bones are not what is important. The name should be enough to keep the town moving forward. If there are those who want to change the name back to Mauch Chunk, they are misguided. Living in the past never works. Plus, honoring the man is more important. Jim deserves our loyalty, even if he is no longer on the hill outside of town.

After 50 or more years, it is amazing that some folks in Oklahoma think Jim would be better off with them. Can't help but wonder if it doesn't have something to do with the fact that his Olympic medals have been restored. Now that he is back in the good graces of certain people, perhaps they think they can raise enough money for a proper burial this time around.

The people of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk took a chance on Jim when no one else did. They honored him despite his fall from grace. In my mind, his bones should stay put.


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