October 1, 1998
Janitor returns Jim Thorpe medals to State Capital
Thorpe daughter remembers fight for father's medals
by Michelle Boyd Waters
The Amateur Athletic Union stripped Prague native James "Jim" Francis Thorpe of his 1912 Olympic track and field gold medals in 1913, stating that he had played professional baseball 1909-10 and therefore did not qualify to win the amateur sports awards.
Family, friends and sports enthusiasts fought to have Thorpe reinstated as an amateur and have the medals returned to him. They won those battles in 1973 and 1983, respectively. But 15 years later, the medals were stolen again - this time from Oklahoma State Capitol exhibit and allegedly by an 18-year-old janitor. The janitor, Terry D. Anderson, Oklahoma City, turned himself in Sept. 24 to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and also returned the medals, according to a report by The Associated Press.
"I received a phone call Friday morning from Dan Mahoney," said Thorpe's daughter, Grace Francis Thorpe, Prague, during an interview Tuesday afternoon. "he said he was from Gov. (Frank) Keating's office and 'I have bad news.' He said Dad's medals have been stolen and I caught my breath. When we (Thorpe's family) gave them to the state, we thought they'd be secure."
The 77-year-old woman said her father's medals have been an ongoing topic for journalists and readers since the AAU took them in 1913. "I thought this is still providing fodder for readers and journalists," Ms Thorpe said. "At first I felt bad, but then I realized that I've got this 'Jim Thorpe: Athlete of the Century' campaign going and at least this is drawing attention to Dad again."
Ms. Thorpe said Mahoney called her again Monday to report that the medals had been returned. "He said the governor will see that the medals' security is better," she said.
Ms. Thorpe and her family, however, has not always trusted others to take care of her father and his medals.
Thorpe died in Lomita, Calif., in 1953. His third wife, Patricia Askew of Kentucky, agreed with family members that the Oklahoma sports legend should be buried in his native state.
Ms. Thorpe said Thorpe's father is buried at Garden Grove cemetary, south of Mocassin Trail Road and Prague. She said the Oklahoma state legislature had appropriated funds to build a memorial at the site, but then Gov. Johnston Murray vetoed the resolution.
So Thorpe's wife made an agreement with two communities in Pennsylvania - Mauch Chuck and East Mauch Chunk - to unite the towns under Thorpe's name and build a memorial and burial site to him there. Civic leaders agreed to the plan and Thorpe was buried about one year after his death in the state where he first achieved college football fame at Carlisle Indian School.
Family members helped convince the AAU to reinstate Thorpe as an amateur because the rules in 1912 stated that officials had 30 days to contest an athlete's amateur status. Officials did not contest Thorpe's status until six months after the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm, Sweden, according to Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete by Gregory Richards.
"Dad is a natinal figure," Ms Thorpe aid. "When former Gov. George Nigh was in office, he said there were many well-known people in the state, but few in Oklahoma are known throughout the nation and only one is known internationally - Jim Thorpe. That was before Shannon Miller (Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics in the early 1990s)."
Ms. Thorpe said many people tried in 1913 to get Thorpe's medals returned to him and people continued to try after his death.
"When I was a kid, I remember somebody was always writing about Dad getting his medals back," Ms. Thorpe said. "Dad said he never wrote a letter to get the medals back. But he was kind of bitter about them taking the medals away from him.
Ms. Thorpe said she remembers when the Ohio Jaycees chapter launched a year-ong campaign to convince the AAU to change her father's status.
She said that finally she appealed to Jack Kelly (brother of actress Grace Kelly and member of the AAU to speak on Thorpe's behalf in 1972. "I heard that Jack Kelly spoke eloquently and the AAU voted unanimously to change Dad's status to amateur in 1973.
In 1976, Ms. Thorpe said she appealed to then President Gerald Ford to ask the International Olympic Committee to return the medals to the family during their executive committee meeting in Montreal, Canada. President of the IOC Lord Killanin brought up the issue at the meeting and the committee tabled it, according to Richards' book.
Ms. Thorpe asked the Sen. Alan Cranston of California to introduce a resolution to the U.S. Congress requesting that the IOC restore the medals and write Thorpe's records back into the books. The resolution passed in 1976 and the IOC officially returned duplicates of the medals in a ceremony in 1983.
According to Richards' book, the second place pentathlon and decathlon winners in the 1912 Olympics, Ferdinand Bie and Hugo Wieslander had been given the meals after they were taken from Thorpe. "It was agreed that it would be unfair to take them back so many years later," Richards' book states. "So the committee decided to award duplicates of the medals to each of Thorpe's seven grown children."
Thorpe was also listed in the record books as a co-champion in the events. Despite having to share the credit for his Olympic wins, Thorpe is still considered the first U.S. athlete the decathlon and the only athlete in the world to win the decathlon and pentathlon during one Olympic year. For Thorpe's Olympic accomplishments, he also received a life-size bust of King Gustav V of Sweden and a Viking Ship encrusted with semi-precious jewels from Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia. The gifts are currently housed at the International Olympic Committee Museum, a private museum in Lausanna, Switzerland.
Thorpe's excellence went beyond the track and field events. Thorpe established his amateur football record as a student at Carlisle Indian School and was chosen to Walter Camp's First Team All American Half-Back in 1911 and 1912. He was a founding father of professional football and served as the first president of the American Professional Football Association, now known as the National Football League. Thorpe also played major league baseball with the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves. He ended the 1919 season with a .327 average. Thorpe is the only American athlete to excel as an amateur and professional in three major sports - track and field, football and baseball.
An Associated Press poll of sports writers in 1950 named Thorpe as America's Greatest All-Around Male Athlete and the greatest football player of the half-century. Sport Magazine in 1977 listed Thorpe as the Greatest American Football Player in History. The athlete was enshrined in the National Indian Hall of Fame, the Helms Professional Football Hall of Fame, the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Halls of Fame in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.
"Dad was in his middle 30s when I was born," Ms. Thorpe said. "I can recall going to a baseball game Dad played in and seeing him do drop kicks from the center of a football field to the goal and then turning around and doing it the other way when I was a kid at Haskell Institute (an Indian school) in Lawrence, Kan." Thorpe was a 5-year-old student at the school when her father performed in the stadium.
However, she said her father was on his way out of sports when she was born. "He was having a real struggle then, having trouble making a living," Ms. Thorpe said. "At one time I remember him digging ditches. It was honorable work to buy shoes for his kids during the Depression."
Ms. Thorpe said she remembers her father giving lectures on sports and Native American topics at the universities and schools and serving as a casting director for Hollywood studio who helped hire Indians for Indian roles. Ms. Thorpe said her father also helped convince the federal government to give the money it was appropriating directly to the tribes instead of funnelling it through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which she said would take a portion of the money to pay bureaucratic costs.
Thorpe also had hobbies, his daughter said. "He was not a talker, but he liked to hunt and fish," Ms. Thorpe said. "I can still see him on some of the piers that go out into the ocean."
She said he had hunting dogs and liked to go 'coon hunting.' "In our Hawthorne neighborhood, the dogs were not popular when the moon was out," she said. "The dogs would be howling and they would call the police. The police would come out and ask my Dad if he could get the dogs to stop howling. But the dogs just wanted to go hunting."
Today Ms. Thorpe spends her time working as a volunteer anti-nuclear activist, working on her Jim Thorpe campaign and cutting ribbons for the openings of new buildings such as schools, government buildings and sports complexes bearing her father's name.