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Should Thorpe be allowed to rest in peace?

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    AP Photo A vehicle passes Jim Thorpe's tomb. Another attempt by the son of Jim Thorpe to have his father's remains returned to Oklahoma is sparking new debate within and outside the community that bears the name of the legendary athlete.
Published June 26. 2010 09:00AM

In life, Jim Thorpe likely never set foot in the former Mauch Chunk.

In death, he became the town's adopted hero, an icon around whom it built its reputation.

But now, more than five decades later, Jim Thorpe may be leaving his "final" resting place. And area residents are not happy.

"It's my firm belief that the dead should be allowed to rest in peace, and this has been a peaceful resting place for Jim Thorpe," Carbon County Administrator Randall Smith said.

Smith recalled meeting with Grace Thorpe, Jim's daughter, numerous times and noted how positively she reacted to the borough.

"She once told me that by changing its name, the town not only did something good for itself, but for Jim Thorpe as well," Smith said. "If his body hadn't been brought here, his legacy would not have been perpetuated like it has."

Michael Koehler, Grace's nephew, further emphasized how much some members of his family appreciate what the borough has done for his grandfather.

"My mother and her sisters had very strong feelings about keeping his body where it currently lays," Koehler said. "Every time we visited the town, we were simply amazed at the dedication of the citizens to honoring his memory. Their reaction convinced us that he is buried in the proper place."

Koehler was adamant in debunking the oft-cited argument that Thorpe's body needs to be moved and reinterred in sacred ground, lest his soul forever wander. According to him, Grace Thorpe performed several Native American rituals at the mausoleum with the help of local chiefs, taking the necessary steps to ensure that the site was properly blessed.

"Believe me, my uncle is buried on sacred ground," Koehler said. "I think it would be a travesty to have him disinterred."

"Jack Thorpe is out of bounds, and is going against his sister's wishes," Jack Kmetz, president of the Jim Thorpe Sports Hall of Fame said. "The town has a written contract signed by Jim Thorpe's ex-wife. We've followed all the provisions completely and haven't violated it in any way. Who's to say we should give the remains up?"

Kmetz defended his stance with the work the town's citizens have done for the American sports legend. A particular source of pride is the letter-writing campaign organized in 2001 by the town that resulted in Thorpe's likeness being reproduced on Wheaties cereal boxes.

"The measures we've taken to honor his memory trump anything done in Oklahoma," Kmetz said. "This guy isn't leaving town without a fight."

Craig Zurn, president and CEO of Jim Thorpe National Bank and Trust, shares Kmetz's strong convictions, but also acknowledges the potential financial burdens the removal of the remains will place on residents.

"If the body is removed, I hope that the town keeps its name," Zurn said. "A name change would certainly be very costly for local business owners, but the spirit of the town would be what suffers the most.

"Having been born and raised under the name of Jim Thorpe, I think people in this community will be passionate in defending their home."

Over the years, supporters of the body's removal have claimed that, from a historical perspective, Jim Thorpe had little, if any, interaction with Carbon County during his life, and subsequently does not belong here in death. Dan Hugos, the president of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, believes this has little merit in the current debate.

"Pennsylvania is where Jim Thorpe spent some of his greatest days, and it's fitting that he's here in a town that keeps his name and legacy alive," Hugos said.

The local historian also hopes that, in the event of the body's removal, the town will keep its current name.

"Frankly, the fact that he's been buried here 50 years is enough reason to keep this tradition alive," he said.

Of course, there are two sides to every debate.

"Although I sympathize with the townspeople and their hard work in keeping Jim Thorpe's legacy alive, my personal feelings are that the bones of this Olympian should be returned to his family," John Drury, owner of the Inn at Jim Thorpe, said.

"His remains have a significant meaning for his family. The lack of his bones doesn't change the town's ability to honor him and his legacy."

Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center director Ron Rabenold also believes Thorpe's body belongs with his family.

"I personally don't feel any animosity toward the family," Rabenold said. "We, as a town, need to keep the family's best interests at heart, and our decisions should reflect that.

"People get bound up in personalities and ownership and forget about what really matters. Change is inevitable."

Truly, only time will tell how much change will come to this region.

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