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The Regilding Of A Legend
Jack McCallum
October 25, 1982
Jim Thorpe's Olympic gold medals at last have been restored, but for Thorpe's family all won't be right till his body lies in ancestral ground
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October 25, 1982

The Regilding Of A Legend

Jim Thorpe's Olympic gold medals at last have been restored, but for Thorpe's family all won't be right till his body lies in ancestral ground

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Otto, a former railroad man like many of his drinking buddies, has uttered that sentiment from a stool in the town's unofficial center of anti-Thorpe feeling, Al Weiksner's Hotel Switzerland bar, located on Hazard Square, across from the Carbon County Court House and hard by the Sunrise Diner. For miles around, it is simply known as Weiksner's.

Weiksner (pronounced Weeks-ner) is no stranger to publicity or attention. The 1970 movie The Molly Maguires was filmed in and around Jim Thorpe, and one of the bar's nightly patrons was Richard Harris. "You didn't see Sean Connery much, though," says Weiksner. Every out-of-town writer eventually finds his way to Weiksner's to soak up the local color, which comes at you like the rat-a-tat-tat of a tommy gun. You cannot get an amaretto sour at Weiksner's, and you'd better not ask for one, but you can get a cold beer and a cheap shot, and the locals reckon Weiksner has made plenty of money serving both.

Weiksner is a first cousin of Pete Gray, the former St. Louis Browns outfielder (the one-armed one), but he's not particularly proud of it. "He was a baseball man," says Weiksner, "and I couldn't care less about that. For me, it's football. Always has been." Al can reach into an old cabinet behind the bar and pluck out a leather helmet from the '20s, a torn jersey from the '30s or a frazzled program from the '40s. When you're a football fan and you've been tending bar in the same town for nearly 50 years, as Weiksner has, your life takes on a museum quality.

But nowhere in Weiksner's treasure house of gridiron memories is there a place for the Indian running back from Carlisle. In Weiksner's and in other pockets of regret throughout the community, Thorpe is indeed just a dead Indian. To know how that sentiment evolved, one must know something about the town, something about how Thorpe lived his life, and something about his wife, Patricia.

That Thorpe was unlucky in love was probably inevitable. An Indian woman from the reservation might have endured his lengthy absences, his drinking, his ignoring most familial responsibilities, but his transgressions were too much for Iva (married 1913, divorced 1923) and Freeda (married 1925, divorced 1941).

"It was like the problems a person from one nationality would have whenever he or she married someone from another nationality," saya Freeda, 77, who lives in Arlington, Texas. "It was mainly the drinking. I could adjust to him being away and things like that—I was very self-sufficient—but the drinking was the real problem."

On June 2, 1945, Thorpe married Patricia, a native of Louisville, who was running a bar in San Pedro, Calif. She died in 1974 in Banning, Calif., where she was managing a nursing home, and left no mourners among the Thorpe progeny. "Truthfully, I can't say one good word about her," says Jack.

Carl will allow her this: "She was a very assertive person. She was able to get Dad money for personal appearances and things that he was doing for free." Carl will also say this: "But though there was more money around the house, it seemed to me that it was going to her for things like diamond rings and furs. As far as Dad was concerned, as long as he had a buck for the next day, he was fine. Patsy wasn't like that."

At any rate, it was Patricia who controlled the destiny of Jim's body when he died after a third heart attack in his house trailer in Lomita, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, on March 28, 1953, two months shy of his 65th birthday. He was probably not a pauper, as many believe. Patricia gave Wheeler access to all of Thorpe's private papers before she died, and Wheeler says he saw receipts from speaking engagements in 1951 for as much as $500. Thorpe was living in a trailer because he liked the mobility; indeed, he had been a man in a trailer, literally and figuratively, for most of his life. California was just another stop.

In keeping with his wishes, at first it appeared that Thorpe would be buried in the Garden Grove cemetery. A committee raised $2,500 to bring his body from California, and $25,000 was appropriated in the Oklahoma State Senate to build a permanent memorial near the gravesite. But the bill was unexpectedly vetoed by then Governor William H. Murray. "He just double-crossed us," says Ross Porter, the former general manager-editor of the Shawnee News Star, who headed the memorial committee. "He had assured us he'd O.K. the bill, but then he backed out."

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