YALE, OKLA. -- Film star and native Oklahoman Chuck Norris was supposed to be here, but his attorney called and said that production of "Sooner Ninja Part IV," or something like that, was behind schedule in the Philippines. So much for the Jim Thorpe Honor Banquet. Without Norris for marquee value, organizers canceled a $50-a-plate dinner.
Just as well. Thorpe probably would have wanted it that way. After all, this was supposed to be a birthday party, not an excuse for black ties. He would have preferred something simpler, something that didn't require a Windsor knot.
"Dad didn't like to be made over," said Grace Thorpe, one of three daughters. "He'd appreciate the fuss, but he was a pretty humble guy."
Thorpe, forever known as the world's greatest athlete, would have been 100 years old May 22, 1987 to be exact. Beth and Homer Ray, who own the local weekly, The Yale News, looked it up.
And 75 years ago, at the Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm, Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon.
Yale, this one-stoplight town of about 1,700, was kind enough to remember.
For a quarter, you could buy a copy of The Yale News, devoted almost entirely to Thorpe. As usual, near the top of the paper, is, "Yale, Home of Jim Thorpe, the World's Greatest Athlete."
Front page news includes an architect's rendition of the proposed Thorpe museum, a biography of Thorpe, a photo of Thorpe in hunting attire and the announcement that William Gooch of Yale "is among more than 2,300 University of Oklahoma students expected to earn degrees this month."
Inside the paper are more Thorpe stories. A photograph of Thorpe's baptismal record shows he was born on May 22, 1887. Other publications, such as The Baseball Encyclopedia, list his date of birth as May 28, 1888.
It was in Yale that Thorpe purchased the only home he ever owend. One block south of Highway 51, past Turner Used Cars and a row of mobile homes, it sits: two bedrooms, a comfortable living room, a small dining room, one bathroom and a cramped kitchen. A coat of light blue paint, a gift from the Oklahoma State Historical Society four months ago, covers the exterior.
Inside are bits and pieces of Thorpe's life. Two Olympic scrolls, one for the pentathlon, the other for the decathlon, hang near the fireplace. In one bedroom is an embroidered bedspread made in a French nunnery, a honeymoon gift from Thorpe to his first wife, Iva. A tiny pair of moccasins that belonged to Jim Jr. (he died in infancy) are in a glass case next to the dining room. Photographs decorate the walls. The original cloth pattern for bonnets for Thorpe's daughters lie next to an antique sewing machine.
"This site . . . is my baby," said curator Meredith Prough, who has conducted free tours of the home for more than 14 years. "This is what has to come first to me. I mean, I really want this to fly. I know it sounds hokey, but kids need heroes. I think Jim Thorpe is good material for that."
On the official Oklahoma state transportation map, the one with Thorpe on the cover, Yale is sandwiched neatly between Tulsa and Stillwater. Years ago, when the promise of black gold lured prospectors and oil derricks dotted the landscape, about 35,000 people lived here. Thorpe, who bought the home in 1917 and left in 1923 after a divorce, was its most celebrated citizen.
Yale was a retreat for Thorpe, a place to hunt, relax and reacquaint himself with his family after the baseball and football seasons. And though the locals were curious, Thorpe rarely talked about the Olympics or the International Olympic Committee's decision to later strip him of his two medals and the Amateur Athletic Union's effort to remove all mention of his records.
Occasionally, after an evening at the local pool hall, Thorpe would become playful. A favorite routine was to slap the backs of a team of horses stationed at the bottom of Boston Street and race them up the hill to his house.
"He'd win, too," Beth Ray said.
The home now belongs to the Oklahoma State Historical Society, which hopes to build a $250,000 memorial museum on a 2 1/2-acre lot just across the street. That's what the weeklong Jim Thorpe Centennial Celebration was all about, a way to pay homage to a legacy, a favorite son.
Although Thorpe excelled in the 1912 Olympics, appeared in a World Series, was once named the best football player of all time, only the National Football League answered a request by organizers for a $2,000 sponsorship.
"They sent the check almost immediately," Mike Chapman, publicity director of the Jim Thorpe Memorial, said last spring. "Major League Baseball said, 'No thanks,' and the Olympic Committee, well, we haven't heard from them."
Thorpe never enjoyed pomp and circumstance. Shortly before the close of the 1912 Summer Games, Thorpe was escorted to the victory stand where he met King Gustav V of Sweden. The king draped two gold medals around Thorpe's neck, then awarded him a jeweled chalice by Czar Nicholas of Russia, as well as a bronze bust in Gustav V's likeness.
Since his arrival in Stockholm, Thorpe had won the five-event pentathlon, finished fourth in the high jump, seventh in the long jump and then won the 10-event decathlon, which lasted three days because of the large number of competitors. So remarkable was his decathlon point total that Thorpe would have won a silver medal in the 1948 Olympics.
"Lovely fella," Abel Kiviat, a silver medalist in the 1912 Summer Games, said years later. "What he had was natural ability. There wasn't anything he couldn't do. All he had to see is someone doing something and he tried it . . . and he'd do it better. He had brute strength . . . stamina . . . endurance. A lot of times, like in the decathlon, he didn't know what he was doing. He didn't know the right way to throw the javelin or the discus, but it didn't matter. He just went there and threw it farther than anyone else."
It was after the awards presentation that King Gustav V leaned toward Thorpe and said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."
Thorpe said, "Thanks, King."
Upon his return to the United States, Thorpe received a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Doused with confetti and praise, Thorpe maintained an appealing innocence.
"I heard people yelling my name," he would say later, "and I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends."
Time hasn't dulled the admiration.
George Allen, a former NFL coach, and Floyd Patterson, an Olympic and world heavyweight boxing champion, were at a Jim Thorpe Memorial Run last May. They signed autographs, posed for photographs, shook hands. Little has changed. Patterson looked fit, eight pounds lighter than when he won the championship in 1956. And Allen was Allen: fervent, emotional, sincere. An evening earlier, Allen was in the lobby of his Tulsa hotel introducing himself to local high school seniors as they arrived for prom night.
Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Robert S. Kerr III was at the Thorpe home, too, as was former Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens, NCAA wrestling champion John Smith and Olympic wrestler Dan Hodge.
They listened to a pre-race concert by the Pride of the Yale Band. Later, American Legion Post 161 and VFW Post 1118 conducted flag-raising ceremonies at the Thorpe home. The Pledge of Allegiance followed, then a 21-gun salute, "Taps" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Later, a message was read from President Reagan:
"Tragedy struck when Jim Thorpe's Olympic medals and records were taken away from him because he had briefly played semi-professional baseball," the mailgram said. "They were finally restored to his family in 1983, but the people of the world had known all along that Jim Thorpe was a true champion. Time can never efface his glory."
The 10-kilometer and two-mile runs began shortly thereafter. Soon, 300 runners made their way around the courses to the sound of John Philip Sousa music. Back at the home, Grace Thorpe carried a lifesize cutout of her father dressed in his Canton Bulldogs football uniform.
"Where's a good place to put him?" she said. "I thought people might want to have their picture taken with him."
On the other side of the house, volunteers sold T-shirts, baseball caps, headbands and bumper stickers. Free Amercian Red Cross books also were available. The Yale News was on sale, too -- but this time for 50 cents.
By day's end, Yale had treated itself to memorable affair. There was an arts and crafts fair, Indian dancing, a concert and Indian Pow Wow. At the Community Room near the town square, you could watch the movie, "Jim Thorpe -- All-American." A then-37-year-old Burt Lancaster, hair dyed black for the role, never had a more attentive audience.
Thorpe, who died of a heart attack in 1953, was buried in Mauch Chunk, Pa., which later became Jim Thorpe, Pa., as part of deal to obtain his body. But Yale has his only home and the good sense to never forget who lived there.
On the back of a commemorative Thorpe postcard is a final sentence:
"We hope you remember us, for we shall fondly remember you. -- The People of Yale."