Thursday, October 17, 2013

As Century Ends, Legend of Thorpe Stays Strong

As Century Ends, Legend Of Thorpe Stays Strong
The Dallas Morning News
SHADY SHORES, Texas - Bob Wheeler parted the weeds at a northeastern Pennsylvania grave site 31 years ago to find a piece of American history shrouded in mystery. Then and there, Wheeler - a high-school student from Rochester, N.Y. - vowed to move whatever mountains stood in the way of justice for the late Jim Thorpe.
Wheeler and his family had attended a game at Yankee Stadium. He persuaded his parents to make a side trip to the town of Jim Thorpe, Pa., before driving home.
The detour was only the beginning of Wheeler's 15-year, 28-state, 12,000-mile odyssey. After viewing Thorpe's mausoleum, untended and forgotten, Wheeler devoted himself to getting authorities to reinstate the 1912 Olympic gold medals that had been stripped from Thorpe.
"Jim Thorpe had been my hero since I chose him for the subject of an oratory contest when I was in the seventh grade," Wheeler said recently at his home near Denton. "He riveted me and inspired me because of the honor and sincerity with which he competed."
Wheeler, president of an Arlington, Texas-based public relations firm, and his wife, Dr. Florence Ridlon, a sociologist, united their skills and tenacity to champion the cause of the great multi-sport athlete, a Sac and Fox Indian born in Oklahoma Territory in 1888.
Ridlon, as it turned out, found the critical evidence that proved Thorpe had been improperly stripped of the medals he won in the pentathlon and decathlon at the Stockholm Olympics. She found the pivotal document in 1982 - 69 years after the medals were revoked.
In 1913, the Amateur Athletic Union and the American Olympic Committee (now the U.S. Olympic Committee) found Thorpe guilty of professionalism because he had played in some baseball games with the Rocky Mount (N.C.) Railroaders of the East Carolina League in 1909-10.
Avery Brundage, Thorpe's teammate on the 1912 U.S. Olympic team, served as International Olympic Committee president from 1952-72. Brundage, who finished sixth in the pentathlon and failed to complete the decathlon in Stockholm, never used his power to restore the medals to Thorpe, who died in 1953, or to his survivors.
Wheeler said that travesty and an atmosphere of rigid mind-sets impelled him on his quest.
He chose Thorpe for the subject of his thesis toward his master of arts in American history from Syracuse University. In 1975, Wheeler published a wrenchingly detailed biography, "Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete."
Thorpe, a world-class high-jumper and three-time All-American in football, played pro football and baseball. He was an outstanding golfer, swimmer, rower, gymnast and tennis player. He excelled at basketball, bowling and billiards. He was masterful at handball, figure skating, hockey, lacrosse, hunting and fishing. And Wheeler cited a 1913 news clip that listed Thorpe as the winner of a ballroom dancing contest.
Thorpe's son Bill, 71, a retired LTV employee who lives in Arlington, said he admired the energy and persistence of Wheeler and Ridlon.
"You've got two of the finest people alive in Bob and Flo," Bill said. "Bob went on the road with his tape recorder. His biography of Dad was the best to ever come out. Bob and Flo never gave up."
Said Wheeler: "It would have been unconscionable not to pursue setting the record straight about Jim Thorpe.
"In my heart, I wanted to get Jim Thorpe's medals restored because it was the right thing to do."
Across the country
In gathering material for his book, Wheeler began by spending one summer hitchhiking to towns in 17 states. He interviewed Thorpe's family, friends, teammates and competitors.
Wheeler said he left home that summer with $200 and returned with about the same amount. He said people were eager to help him, often inviting him to stay in their homes.
From a rocking chair in Gettysburg, Pa., former president Dwight Eisenhower, who played football at West Point, told Wheeler what it had really been like to try to tackle Thorpe. Ike had missed, colliding with a teammate instead, the general told Wheeler.
"It was like interviewing your grandfather," Wheeler said. "When I was getting ready to leave, he pulled out his wallet and offered me money because he didn't want me hitchhiking."
During his quest, Wheeler shot holes in a number of myths that surrounded Thorpe. There had been accounts making the rounds for decades questioning Thorpe's grades. Among Wheeler's discoveries was a report card in the possession of a retired schoolteacher who had instructed Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. The teacher's notation indicated he was a "very good" student.
Some reports had said Thorpe spent the sea voyage to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in a hammock, basically goofing off. Wheeler opened a streamer trunk owned by one of Thorpe's survivors and found a photograph showing the decathlete jogging around the ship's deck to train during the passage.
Wheeler also documented that Glenn S. "Pop" Warner, the legendary football innovator who coached Thorpe at Carlisle, sent the athlete to the playing stint of summer baseball that formed the crux of the medal-stripping.
"You could say Pop Warner mandated it," Wheeler said. "Pop made the telephone call to the manager."
Thorpe made $15 a week playing summer baseball.
Despite Wheeler's discoveries that aided the public perception of Thorpe, Wheeler still lacked documentation that could hold up legally in reclaiming the medals. In 1973, the AAU had restored Thorpe's amateur status, but nothing had changed regarding the Olympic medals.
In February 1982, Wheeler and Ridlon founded the Jim Thorpe Foundation in Washington, D.C., using proceeds from sales of his book.
"The Summer Olympics were coming up in Los Angeles in 1984," Ridlon said. "We were afraid it might be the last time for the Summer Olympics to be in this country, and that it might be Jim Thorpe's last chance. It was a matter of timing."
Desperate to keep the quest alive, Wheeler chose to make ends meet by caddying at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., where he could talk up his foundation's work.
"We were living on nothing," Ridlon said. "All these people did what they could to help us."
At the country club, the golfers not only embraced the Thorpe cause in spirit, but they opened their wallets. Wheeler opened his hand one day to look at the tip from a golfer and found $2,000 with a note to use it for the foundation's crusade.
Florence Ridlon said she and her husband had found the IOC unresponsive and arrogant. She sought a rule book from the 1912 Olympics.
"The IOC said there were no rules or regulations written for that Olympics," Ridlon recalled. "These international Olympic people still had no sense of the issue."
So, on a July day in 1982, she stood among the metal shelves in an off-limits area of the Library of Congress. The sports archivist had given her permission to search the stacks. Some instinct she still can't pin down made her stick her arm down behind the shelves.
She groped around until her hand made contact with . . .
"It was a little pamphlet kind of thing with an orange cover," she said. "It had slipped down behind a set of metal shelves. When I saw it, I just stood there in shock. Nobody was around; I probably could have screamed, but I was actually breathless. I don't think I could have spoken. I still get emotional about it."
Wheeler said he remembered she was crying when she phoned him at the foundation that day.
She had found a copy of the Swedish rules and regulations for the 1912 Olympics. Rule 13 read: "Objections to the qualification of a competitor must be made in writing and be forwarded without delay to the Swedish Olympic Committee. No such objection shall be entertained unless accompanied by a deposit of 20 Swedish Kronor and received by the Swedish Olympic Committee before the lapse of 30 days from the distribution of the prizes."
Almost seven months had passed between the time that Thorpe was awarded his medals in Stockholm and the revelations that led to his disqualification. The document that Ridlon found contained the legal technicality that she and her husband could take to the authorities.
"Flo is the smartest person I've ever met," Wheeler said of his wife of 28 years. "The historical ending wouldn't have been possible without her."
Wheeler said he found an ally in William E. Simon, a former USOC president who lobbied the top levels of the Olympic movement. Simon urged Samaranch to propose restoring Thorpe's amateur status. The IOC executive board passed the resolution on Oct. 13, 1982. Thorpe's daughter, Gail, was quoted at the time: "My father is the only person who has had to win the same medals twice."
The original medals, believed to have been stolen from a museum in Scandinavia, never turned up. Samaranch gave replicas to Thorpe's children during a Jan. 18, 1983, ceremony in Los Angeles.
Wheeler and Ridlon were included in most of the festivities. The next year, Wheeler went to work in public relations for ABC Sports, whose officials told him they liked the thoroughness of his Thorpe crusade.
Crusade created new career
Red boxing gloves used by Muhammad Ali decorate one wall of the study in Wheeler's lakeside home, where he and his wife live with their son, Rob, 10.
Wheeler is president of The Avail Group, which handles public relations and event management.
Most of the artifacts in the Wheeler home reflect sports history.
The upstairs hallway is a literal shrine to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. One collage features a picture of Vinko Bogataj, whose spectacular fall during a ski-jumping competition provided the signature "agony" video for ABC's "Wide World of Sports."
Wheeler, ever the sports documentarian, matter-of-factly said Bogataj now drives a forklift in a chain factory in Transylvania.
One wall is dedicated to Thorpe. The words, "To Great Friends," are inscribed on a photograph of Thorpe's son, Chief Jack Thorpe, posing with Wheeler and Ridlon.
"When I walk down the hall," Wheeler said, "I just get such a great feeling."
As the 20th century winds down, sports historians and media companies, reviewing a hundred years of athletic achievements, have sought out Wheeler. ESPN interviewed him as a source for its countdown of the century's best athletes.
But does Wheeler think Thorpe has the support to outduel more recent superstars, such as Ali and Michael Jordan, for the honor of the century's top athlete?
"If people are informed, Jim Thorpe would win," Wheeler said. "What he's got against him is that voters were not alive when Thorpe was in his prime."
Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment