At the foot of the Pocono Mountains is a beautiful area that was once called the “Switzerland of America.” But the locals call it something else now: Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
You can’t miss the name if you try. There is the Jim Thorpe Neighborhood Bank, the Jim Thorpe Market, the Jim Thorpe Trolley, and the Jim Thorpe Area High School, whose sports teams are called the Olympians.
Mayor Michael Sofranko is a lifelong Thorper: “In 1970, when we’d go somewhere and they’d say, ‘Where are you from?’ And I’d say, ‘Jim Thorpe,’ he’d say, ‘I don’t want your name. I want to know where you live!’ And now, what’s happened is, when I go somewhere and say, ‘Where are you from?,’ and I say, ‘Jim Thorpe,’ they say, ‘Oh my God, I love that town!'”
And in case you’re wondering, yes, the town is named after Jim Thorpe, a man who became world famous after the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won gold medals in athletics. “To be crowned ‘World’s Best Athlete’ by the King of Sweden is, I think, one of the greatest moments of my life,” Thorpe said.
“Calling Jim Thorpe the greatest athlete in American history is not a stretch, because no other athlete has done it before,” said David Maraniss. He would know; his biography of Thorpe, “Path Lit By Lightning” (published by the CBS company Simon & Schuster, a division of Paramount Global) tells Thorpe’s remarkable story. “No one has ever had the trinity of being a great NFL player, a gold medalist in the decathlon and pentathlon, and a great league player,” Maraniss said. “And he was great at ballroom dancing. He was a great skater, great swimmer. Lacrosse, of course. People said he was good at marbles!”
The athlete also became an actor, in films such as “Fighting Buffalo Bill” and “Wagon Master.” And thanks in part to his encouragement, African Americans were increasingly played by Native Americans (he included).
Prague, Oklahoma was Indian territory when Thorpe was born there in 1887, raised on the Sac and Fox Reservation. His birth name, Wa-Tho-Huk, means “Bright Path.”
Jim passed by the time Anita Thorpe came along, but spent the rest of his life learning his grandmother’s story. “People used to come to us and ask, ‘Are you related?’ “I still understand it to this day,” he said. “As a grandson, I just feel like it’s my honor to carry his name and continue his story as best I can.”
Rocca asked, “If your last name is Thorpe, should you be good at sports?”
“You don’t,” he replied. “None of his descendants could fill his shoes.”
And back in Jim Thorpe town, where tourism is booming, the story of Jim Thorpe the man, gets a little complicated. For one thing, Thorpe himself never set foot in the town in his lifetime.
After his death in 1953, most of his family wanted him to be buried in Oklahoma. But his widow had other ideas, and she took action: she donated her late husband’s body to the fortunate Poconos region, and the town of Jim Thorpe, Pa., was born.
How did this happen? To learn more about America’s greatest athlete and how he was buried in a town he never lived in, listen to Mo Rocca’s podcast “Mobituaries.”
For more information:
Article created by Young Kim. Editor: Chad Cardin.