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Jim Thorpe's grandson speaks out on lawsuit

  • Michael Koehler, the eldest grandson of Jim Thorpe doesn't support the lawsuit, feels marginalized by the side of the family that is pursuing the lawsuit, and is extremely unhappy that non-family members have taken over management of the lawsuit.
    Michael Koehler, the eldest grandson of Jim Thorpe doesn't support the lawsuit, feels marginalized by the side of the family that is pursuing the lawsuit, and is extremely unhappy that non-family members have taken over management of the lawsuit.
Published December 29. 2012 09:02AM

Michael Koehler, the eldest grandson of Jim Thorpe doesn't support the lawsuit, feels marginalized by the side of the family that is pursuing the lawsuit, and is extremely unhappy that non-family members have taken over management of the lawsuit.

Over the 2012 Memorial Day weekend, Robert "Bob" W. Wheeler and his son, Rob Wheeler gave presentations at the Mauch Chunk Museum in which they argued that the town of Jim Thorpe should go along with the lawsuit and repatriate the remains of Jim Thorpe for reburial in Oklahoma.

Robert W. Wheeler Is the author of the book Jim Thorpe World's Greatest Athlete. His son, Rob Wheeler, is the host of the website, Jim Thorpe Rest In Peace - The mission statement of the site is, "To inform the public about the issues surrounding the request from Jim Thorpe's sons and the Sac & Fox Nation to the Borough of Jim Thorpe, PA to return Jim's remains to his sons for proper reburial in Sac & Fox Nation land in Oklahoma..."

Rob Wheeler has written on his site and in local publications that, "It is the Sac & Fox belief, as well as the belief of his sons, that his spirit will not be at peace until he is laid to rest on Sac & Fox land."

Underlying the lawsuit for the return of Jim Thorpe's remains is a lack of agreement between the two factions of the family: the children of Jim Thorpe's first wife, Iva Miller, and the children of Jim Thorpe's second wife, Freeda V. Kirkpatrick, over the decision to bury him in the borough of Jim Thorpe made by his third wife, Patricia Askew.

Koehler is the grandson of Jim Thorpe and his first wife, Iva Miller. Thorpe and Miller had four children together: Jim Thorpe Jr. who died during the flu epidemic and three daughters: Gale, Charlotte-Michael's mother- and Grace. As she neared the end of her life, Grace Thorpe asked Koehler to represent her father's heritage for the family.

Koehler has a Ph. D in Educational Administration Supervision, taught for 23 years at the university level, and is the author of 16 books.

In recent days, Koehler has become increasingly disturbed about the progress of the lawsuit and in particular, that his side of the family has been left out of discussions, and that the Wheeler family appears to be making decisions, or at the very least acting in as spokespersons for the lawsuit plaintiffs-who with the passing of Jack Thorpe, are the surviving sons of Jim Thorpe's second marriage and members of the Sac and Fox tribe.

"The law suit involving my grandfather Jim Thorpe's remains is not a debate or the painful element in a family controversy," Koehler said. "My side of the family, the lineal descendants from Thorpe's first marriage, recognize and respect the sensitivity of the question involving his remains and acknowledge Jack Thorpe's genuine concern that his father be returned to his family's plot for burial.

"The eldest grandchild from Jim's first marriage, I am concerned that Jack's half of the family has been somewhat insensitive to the feelings of my half of the family. Jack had been trying for years to convince the borough of Jim Thorpe to return his father's remains to Oklahoma and, in fact, waited until his sisters died to reopen the lawsuit. Unfortunately, Jack died while the suit was under consideration, so his brothers, Richard and Bill, along with the Sac and Fox tribe of Oklahoma, volunteered to sustain the suit.

"My side of the family feels strongly that our grandfather should remain with the many good people of Jim Thorpe, PA, primarily because a legitimate deal was struck more than fifty years ago, the town has honored their side of the agreement by perpetuating the name and legacy of this country's greatest athlete, and thousands of people not only call Jim Thorpe home but devote themselves to his memory with feelings bordering on reverence. In a perfect world, my grandfather might have been buried originally in Oklahoma, but, for whatever reason, the state failed after his death to allocate funds for a suitable memorial.

"The lawyers representing the borough are currently exploring mediation as a possible solution. Unfortunately, the other half of the family insists that my half of the family should not be involved in the mediation. I write this article to let them know and to inform the general public that our love of Jim Thorpe is equally strong. In fact, it was my mother and my aunts who worked for decades to convince the International Olympic Committee to restore my grandfather's amateur standing and to return duplicates of his medals to the entire family. Contrary to claims in the Wheeler website, it was my mother who was identified by the IOC president as the "key figure in the restoral action." We, too, have a family plot in Oklahoma. Currently, my grandmother, Jim's first wife, is buried there along with Jim Thorpe, Jr., their first child, and their daughters, one of whom is my mother and two of whom are my aunts.

"We, however, have no desire to seek his disinterment and the return of his remains to Oklahoma, primarily because my Aunt Grace, Jim's youngest daughter, in conjunction with several chiefs from local Pennsylvania tribes, performed a native American burial ritual on his current burial site. We are convinced that he lies in sanctified ground and that to forcibly remove him would border on sacrilege. And, unfortunately, Rob Wheeler's observation that his spirit will not rest until he receives a Sac and Fox burial and lies in Sac and Fox ground is confusing.

"The Native American belief is that the deceased's spirit should return to Mother Earth. My grandfather's spirit has returned to Mother Earth and lies in ground sanctified by his daughter. Even beyond that, what is the definition of Sac and Fox ground, their original homelands in Canada and Wisconsin, the village of Saukenak in Illinois where they lived and died for more than sixty years, any part of the ground in Iowa or Kansas where they were forced to relocate by the land-grabbing dictates of Manifest Destiny, or the strip of land in Oklahoma which was granted them upon their forced relocation to Indian Territory?

"Another cause of concern to my side of the family is the fact that my half-uncle Bill, apparently has asked one of my grandfather's biographers, Robert Wheeler, to handle the specifics of the lawsuit and, apparently, to make many of the decisions regarding the disposition of my grandfather's remains once they arrive in Oklahoma. My brother, John, was recently surprised during a phone conversation with Mr. Wheeler to be told by him that he has no plans to bury my grandfather's remains in either family plot but to bury him near the headquarters of the tribe in Stroud, Oklahoma.

"My side of the family can't help but wonder why Jack Thorpe's original reason for the lawsuit apparently has been disregarded and why a non-family member is suddenly making the decisions about my grandfather's remains. We believe that these concerns should be discussed in court to determine the future of the lawsuit. In our minds, the whole issue has become painfully convoluted and more than a little suspect, and continues to disregard the fact that Jim is at rest and should be permitted to remain so-among thousands of people who live and have lived in the town bearing his name, and who honor that name and continue to work tirelessly to perpetuate his legacy in the minds and hearts of millions of people in this country and across the world.

"Finally, my brother has a close friend who is a descendant of Crazy Horse and who took him to a Sioux Sun Dance ceremony just a couple of years ago. At the ceremony, John met a chief who told John that he communicated with my grandfather's spirit and was told by Jim that he was at peace and didn't want his name to be the cause of any more controversy. John is convinced that his spirit is at rest and that his grandfather would prefer that his families forego any further dispute over his remains. We agree with him and suggest to the Wheelers and to the other half of the family that all of us let him rest in peace."

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