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Author of Jim Thorpe's biography shakes things up

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Kate Buford signs a copy of her book, "Native American Son," owned by the Dimmick Memorial Library in Jim Thorpe.
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Kate Buford signs a copy of her book, "Native American Son," owned by the Dimmick Memorial Library in Jim Thorpe.
Published November 22. 2010 05:00PM

If you think you know the facts about the athlete Jim Thorpe, think again.

Kate Buford's hot-off-the-press, "Native American Son," a nearly 400-page exceptionally organized and thoroughly researched biography that, from the first page to the last, introduces new facts about the Olympian that pretty much makes all previous information obsolete.

Recently at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Buford signed copies of her book, including a copy of her book owned by the Dimmick Memorial Library in Jim Thorpe, and discussed her research for the book.

Buford was introduced by Barbara Landis, archivist of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, who explained, "I first met Buford at the Jim Thorpe Family Reunion in Prague, Oklahoma in May 2001. She was one of several biographers invited by Thorpe's family to share stories and testimonials about the greatest athlete of the 20th century with his family and their friends. We all sat around the table with Thorpe's children, grandchildren, cousins and relatives spending precious time forging new friendships and hearing new stories."

Buford continued that connection with the family, with the historical society, the Football Hall of Fame, and the Warner Bros. archives at the University of Southern California. It was at the Warner Bros. Studio where the idea for the book was born. At the time, she was working on a biography of Burt Lancaster.

"I came across this story while doing research for the Burt Lancaster book," Buford said. "He played 'Jim Thorpe-All American,' a Warner Bros. biopic from 1951.

"What struck me was not only the story, but how many people wrote postcards and letters to Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. Studio in 1950, as they were preparing for this movie, saying, 'Don't Hollywoodize it. Get it straight!'" she paused and continued. "Jim Thorpe hadn't competed since 1928, and this was 1950."

In "Native American Son," Buford traces Jim Thorpe's heritage from when his reported first American relation, William Thorp, helped found New Haven in 1637, to the current lawsuit in which Jim Thorpe's youngest son from his second marriage, Jack, is leading an action to claim his father's remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Although Jim Thorpe claimed he was "five-eighths Indian, one-fourth Irish, and one-eighth French," Buford begs to differ having traced the Thorp(e) side of Jim Thorpe's family tree to William Thorp, she found him to be an Englishman, not an Irishman.

Buford writes, "Jim said he was born … May 28, 1888. In fact, he was born a year earlier on May 22."

This "In fact," which is not documented in the book, contradicts just about every reference on the subject including: "The Official Site of Jim Thorpe" which states, "James Francis Thorpe was born on May 28, 1887," the Oklahoma Historical Society which writes, "Thorpe was born … May 28, 1888 (some controversy exists concerning his birth year, as his estate cites 1887)," and the Library of Congress which states, "World-Class Athlete Jim Thorpe was born May 28, 1888."

Buford points to "May 22, 1887" as the birth date recorded on Jim Thorpe's Baptismal Certificate, which she has reviewed and accepts as accurate.

An aspect of Jim Thorpe that came through in Buford's presentation and book, an aspect that had rarely been discussed was his clowning and his showmanship. She spoke about how when the speedy Thorpe was chased while carrying the football, he would often slow down, play to the crowd, and then sprint off to the goalpost amid the screaming cheers of his fans.

In the book, Buford writes, "Jim demonstrated drop-kicking before the game. He would start at the thirty- or thirty-five-yard line and work back to the middle of the field, almost invariably kicking the ball through the goalposts. At the fifty-yard line, he would kick the ball through one goalpost and then do the same through the other. The crowd went wild every time."

In the prologue to "Native American Son," Buford concludes by writing, "A gentle person, intelligent and funny, with many flaws, Jim Thorpe was not a complicated man. But what happened to him was."

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