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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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History Luncheon Highlights Jim Thorpe
by Sean Bailey - The (Corbin, KY) Times-Tribune
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Jim Thorpe has been called “The Greatest Athlete of All-Time” and football’s “first star.” During the 1912 summer Olympics in Sweden, Thorpe became the first and only athlete in history to win both the pentathlon and decathlon.

Besides being an unmatched athlete Thorpe, as an American Indian, helped break some race barriers. Thorpe’s list of achievements are long, and thanks to a film starring Burt Lancaster, fairly well known.

But Dr. Robert Reising of University of the Cumberlands also contends that Thorpe was an “American Patriot.”

Reising, who’s working on his third book about Thorpe, talked about Thorpe’s multiple attempts to serve his country in World War II during his speech at the last of Corbin Main Street’s Hungry for History Lunch and Lecture series on Tuesday.

When war broke out on Dec. 7, 1941 Thorpe went to the Army recruiting station to sign-up for the war effort. Thorpe at the time was still pretty famous for his athletic prowess, but none of the branches of the military would take him. He was easily able to pass recruitment physical tests. But there was one problem. Thorpe was 54-years-old.

“The Army recruitment officer says, ‘Thank you but you are 54 years of age, we don’t take 54-year-olds.’ So he goes to the Navy, same reply. Tries the Marines, same routine, same thing,” Reising said during his speech. “At this time he was still in top shape, he was a top marksmen, but they all said sorry Mr. Thorpe, we don’t use 54-year-olds.”

Eventually Thorpe found a job as a security guard at the famous Ford Rouge Plant in Detroit, which was cranking out all sorts of war-bound machinery. Reising said Thorpe was “ecstatic” to find a job that helped the war effort.

In 1945, Thorpe was finally able to join the war effort in a more hands-on way when the U.S. Merchant Marines relaxed their enlistment requirements. Thorpe hoped to quietly serve his country as a carpenter aboard a ship.

Thorpe fought hard to serve a country, that Reising argues, Thorpe had every reason to “ignore”. After the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe was stripped of his eight medals because he played professional baseball in 1909. At the time, Olympic athletes had to be strictly amateur — nobody receiving compensation for their sporting abilities could compete in the games.

Reising said the international community — countries that Thorpe had beat in the Olympics — came out in support of Thorpe, while officials from the United States pushed to have Thorpe’s medals taken from him.

“Keep in mind, this is a man who lost his Olympic awards, and the primary villain in that rigged arrangement is the United States and the Olympic Committee and the Amateur Athletics Union of the U.S.,” Reising said.

“...He has every reason to be irate, he has every reason not to want to do anything for his country. But here you have him in a security guard outfit.”

Reising showed a picture of Thorpe towering above nurses in their frocks after giving blood for the war effort at the Rouge Ford Plant.

“He’s serving his country, the country that did him in, as it were. The country that treated him unfairly,” Reising continued pointing to Thorpe.

Thorpe did play professional baseball in 1909 during a summer while attending Carlisle Indian College. But as Reising pointed out, Thorpe received “the equivalent of room and board” while playing professional baseball, and Thorpe was one of many college men playing pro baseball. Many of those young men, Reising said, changed their names on baseball rosters to conceal their identities and to retain their amateur status.

Thorpe would have none of that, Reising said, while other players changed their names to innocuous, common names like Brown, Smith, and Jones, Thorpe refused to change his Irish name or hide his American-Indian heritage. Thorpe’s refusal in an era of more open racism may have helped contribute to the loss of his medals, Reising said.

Reising explained that many of the people who sat on boards, like the U.S. Olympic Committee, who stripped Thorpe of his medals, also had ties with Harvard, Brown, University of Pennsylvania and the rest of the New England academic elite. The “seeds” of ill will were planted by the elite schools when Thorpe’s college beat the prestigious Harvard.

“There was much ill feeling about how such an insignificant school with an Indian — who was such a stellar performer — How could such a school humiliate the best institution in the land?” Reising said. “There was, understandably — but tragically — a great deal of ill will, and he was isolated and he had to send back his awards.”

One bright light came out of the loss of Thorpe’s awards — professional baseball teams clamored to sign Thorpe. After a stint in pro baseball Thorpe switched over to professional football, where he was not only a manager and a player, but also the fledgling league’s president.

After the war Thorpe married his third wife, Louisville native Patricia Askew. Askew, Reising said, was a bit more “entrepreneurial” than his first two wives. In 1953, Thorpe suffered his third, and fatal heart attack at the age of 64, Reising said, with Askew at his side.

Askew quickly worked to get Thorpe memorialized, first taking Thorpe’s body to his native Oklahoma. Reising said Askew wanted to honor Thorpe on his native “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma, but demanded that Oklahoma leaders erect all sorts of “malls and theaters” in Thorpe’s honor. Oklahoma’s leaders weren’t having any of it — but Askew did find takers in East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk, Penn. City leaders there were looking to consolidate the two townships, and came together as Jim Thorpe, Penn.

Reising said Jim Thorpe, Penn. is a quiet sedate setting that Thorpe might have enjoyed. Thorpe, according to Reising, loved hunting, fishing and trapping above all sports — even the one’s he’s famous for. But Jack Thorpe — Thorpe’s son from his second marriage — has been fighting for years to get Thorpe’s body moved back to Oklahoma. Reising said an aging Jack Thorpe is still trying to wage a legal battle, but because Askew was legally in charge of Thorpe’s remains, it’s doubtful the body will ever be moved.

Thirty years after his death, Thorpe’s gold medals were re-cast and given to his family.

Reising helped establish a scholarship at U of C to honor Thorpe called “The Jim Thorpe Patriot Scholarship.” The scholarship is awarded to one male and one female student who is in need of financial assistance and is preferably a student-athlete who has demonstrated a commitment to patriotism and service.

To give a tax-deductable contribution to the fund you can contact Reising at (606) 539-4518. Reising is quick to remind people that none of the money goes to him.

In fact, Reising pointed out to Tuesday’s Hungry for History audience that he even insisted on paying for his own lunch, “I will not exploit Mr. Thorpe’s name, and I always pay for my own lunch.”

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