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Jim Thorpe died 60 years ago - but has he ever rested?

  • Jim Thorpe's twin brother, Charlie, died when they were eight. Jim felt that he inherited his strength from his brother; that Charlie, was with him all the time.
    Jim Thorpe's twin brother, Charlie, died when they were eight. Jim felt that he inherited his strength from his brother; that Charlie, was with him all the time.
Published April 20. 2013 09:02AM

"... and by a sleep, to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

William Shakespeare

It sometimes seems that Jim Thorpe is remembered more for what has happened since he died, than for the amazing accomplishments of his life.

Since his passing on March 28, 1953, his spirit and his remains have continued to be newsworthy. After his death, his body was relocated by his third wife from California, first to Oklahoma, and then to East Mauch Chunk-who merged with Mauch Chunk and changed its name to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. For nearly 60 years, the town has remembered him and honored his grave site, even sponsoring a tribal ceremony - supported by the children of his first wife - to consecrate it as sacred ground.

In 2010, after the passing of the last of the children of his first wife, the children of his second wife filed a suit in federal court to repatriate Jim Thorpe's remains to Oklahoma. Three years later, the suit remains unsettled.

In 1982, his achievements in winning the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics have been returned to the International Olympic Committee record books, and duplicate medals were posthumously awarded to and accepted by members of his family.

In 2000, in a poll of sports fans conducted by ABC Sports, Thorpe was voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century. This was in addition to having been voted the Greatest Athlete of the first half of the century by the Associated Press in 1950 - three years before his death.

ABC Sports noted that he excelled in virtually every sport: track, field, football, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, golf, swimming, rowing, hockey and boxing. He even won a ballroom dancing championship.

Thorpe was in the limelight for a brief time, from 1911 when he led the Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team in an upset of Harvard to his retirement from professional football in 1928. But before achieving fame, during his athletic years, and after his athletic retirement at the age of 41, there was darkness behind the limelight.

Jim's greatest darkness was the loss of his twin brother, Charlie. When Jim and Charlie were six years old, their father placed them in a Sac and Fox boarding school 23 miles away. Jim hated school and frequently ran away. An epidemic swept the school; Charlie died. Jim had run away. "Fortunately he did not like school," said daughter Grace Thorpe. "That probably saved his life."

His son, Richard, once asked him where he got his strength. "He said he inherited from his brother," Richard Thorpe said. "He felt his brother, Charlie, was with him all the time."

After Charlie died, Jim's father, Hiram, sent him to the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. When Jim learned that his father was ill and in danger of dying, he walked home-280 miles in two weeks.

Hiram survived, but soon his mother, Charlotte, died giving birth to her eleventh child. Jim never return to Haskell. Instead, he got a job breaking horses in the Texas Panhandle. "I never met a wild one that I could not catch, saddle and ride," Jim wrote later in life. "That is one achievement of my boyhood days that I did not hesitate to feel proud about."

Hiram enrolled Jim at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, saying, "I want you to show other races what the Indian can do." These were his last words to Jim. Hiram died two months later.

Carlisle was a social experiment to mold Indians into modern Americans. More than 10,000 students that passed through Carlisle, but only 761 graduated. Hundreds died of disease and more than 1,000 ran away. Thorpe was a survivor.

Jim entered Carlisle at a small non-athletic 115 pounds. They send him out to the country on the farms. He became taciturn and rebelled, and frequently ran away-but with nowhere to go, ultimately returned, and was locked in the guardhouse on a ration of bread and water.

Three years later, in 1907, Jim muscled out, and one day on a lark, cleared the high bar at 5'-8" with inches to spare. Word reached coach "Pop" Warner and a sporting career was born. Jim liked athletics, and it didn't hurt that the athletes at Carlisle received better food and accommodations. Next onto football where Jim scored five touchdowns in his first game.

Thorpe married three times. With his first wife, Iva, he had a son, Jim Jr., who died at the age of three from infantile paralysis. A family friend remarked, "after his death Jim was never the same." With Iva, he had four three surviving daughters. With his second wife, Freeda, he had four surviving sons. He had no children with his third wife, Patricia.

Jim played his last professional football game in 1929 at the age of 41. His sporting career crashed just about the time stock market crashed. He had been on the road most of his adult life and hardly spent any time with his family-possibly a result of being separated from his own parents during his formative years. For the rest of his life he would have a hard time finding work - and controlling a drinking problem.

Thorpe moved to California to find work in the movies. He found relatively steady work helping with the horse scenes during the golden age of westerns. He dislike the way Indians were portrayed in the films, and became a speaker for Native Americans, lobbied for return of Indian lands, and for oil revenues from lands that were taken from the Sac and Fox tribe during the Oklahoma Land Rush.

"He wore two hats. One as a former athlete that inspired young athletes. Other times he was Bright Path with a nod to the Indians who used the regalia and Indianness to make a point in the white man's world," according to a Native American Public Television documentary.

"I have never forgotten that I am an Indian," Jim Thorpe said in a speech. "No Indian can forget it. We settled this country long before the white people have ever come to these shores. But Red Men are wards of the government. The Indian should be able to shed his inferiority complex and live like a normal American citizen."

On this commemoration of his passing, Jim Thorpe is remembered-for his athletic accomplishments, for his fight for Indian rights, for his family, and for the borough that has honored him for nearly 60 years. May he rest in peace.

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