So when she pulled up to her husband’s in-progress Native American funeral service at a farm near here on the night of April 12, 1953, with a hearse and a highway patrolman in tow, everybody knew something bad was about to happen.
What transpired, however, is perhaps unmatched in the history of American funeral proceedings.
She barged into the service and announced that her dead husband was “too cold.”
She ordered the coffin loaded into the hearse, then drove away, taillights disappearing into the darkness.
Over the next several months, she shopped the body around, looking for a memorial for him and cash for her. After alienating almost everyone, she wound up 1,340 miles away in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, asking two tiny boroughs straddling a bend in the Lehigh River — Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk — to unite under the name “Jim Thorpe” in exchange for his corpse.
It was macabre, it was bizarre, but the Chunks, once vacation getaways for U.S. presidents and the East Coast smart set, were desperate. Their coal-based fortunes had devolved into mid-century squalor. Civic leaders hoped the name change and a memorial might be their ticket back to prosperity.
With a parade, tooting horns and a marching band, they signed the deal, and today Jim Thorpe lies in a red marble mausoleum in Jim Thorpe, Pa.
This might be the end of the story, except for the fact that the four sons of Jim Thorpe never forgave and they never forgot.
They have asked, pleaded and two years ago sued in federal court to force the borough to right their stepmother’s wrong. They want to bury their father where he wanted: in or near the Thorpe family plot on the Great Plains of rural Oklahoma, about a mile from where he was born.
It is, to them and the Sac and Fox Nation, a fundamental human right for Native Americans to bury their people where they wish them to be buried.
Jim Thorpe, Pa., has politely but steadfastly refused to return the body.
“We lived up to our end of the bargain,” says Michael Sofranko, the mayor. “That’s about as American as you can get.”
As the years have passed and the shadows have lengthened, the sons’ quest has taken on a Homeric aura, as if lifted from the pages of “The Odyssey.” It has lasted 59 years, through 11 presidential administrations, Vietnam, Watergate, the civil rights movement, Reaganism, the collapse of the Soviet empire, Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid, the birth of the Internet and the entire life span of Barack Obama.
Their lawsuit may have, at last, brought them to the brink of victory.
“I’ve got nothing against the town,” said Richard Thorpe, one of two surviving Thorpe children. He is sitting in a truck stop diner in Waurika, Okla., on a recent Sunday afternoon. He’s a thin, wiry man, sporting a Chevy gimme cap, an NFL Hall of Fame jacket and a countenance that shows all of his 79 years.