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Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania to appeal ruling on namesake athlete

The Jim Thorpe Memorial in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Joe McDonald
The Jim Thorpe Memorial in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Joe McDonald

By Joe McDonald

JIM THORPE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - The small Pennsylvania hamlet named for early 20th century sports hero Jim Thorpe has decided to appeal a recent federal court ruling that could clear the way for the athlete's remains to be moved from his resting place in the town to tribal Indian lands in Oklahoma.

The Jim Thorpe Borough Council, in a unanimous vote late on Thursday, agreed to hire a lawyer and petition the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week in a case that pits the athlete's two sons against his grandchildren.

The sons are seeking to move the remains of their father, who was of mixed Native American and European ancestry, to Oklahoma, where he was born. The grandchildren want his grave kept in Pennsylvania.

Thorpe would have been buried in Oklahoma in the first Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk place, his family said, but for a disagreement between his widow and the state's governor over the athlete's burial.

As a result, she "farmed" his remains around to several cities, finally settling on two Pennsylvania towns - Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, said Bill Thorpe, 84, of Arlington, Texas. Bill Thorpe said his father always intended to be buried in Oklahoma.

Jim Thorpe never lived in the eastern Pennsylvania towns that took his name. But he was buried there 60 years ago, and a monument was erected in his honor, on the basis of an agreement with his widow allowing the borough to call itself Jim Thorpe and potentially giving the town a new way to draw more tourists.

William Schwab, an attorney who has been representing the town on a pro bono basis, has said the appeals process will probably take a year or longer, especially if the case were to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thorpe, considered one of the greatest figures in modern sports, earned two gold medals for multi-discipline track events at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, played college and professional football and professional baseball and basketball.

His life, one of alcoholism and poverty in his last years, was depicted in "All American," a 1951 movie starring Burt Lancaster.

Moving Thorpe's remains to Oklahoma could expose the borough to a breach-of-contract lawsuit, possibly one brought by the athlete's grandchildren. Fighting the case in court, on the other hand, would likely cost tens of thousands of dollars, borough Councilwoman Joanne Klitsch said.

"We're basically between a rock and a hard place," she said.

The matter ended up court in 2010 when Thorpe's sons, Bill and Richard Thorpe, joined with the Sac and Fox Nation in a lawsuit seeking burial of Thorpe's remains to Oklahoma.

The dispute escalated last month, when a U.S. district court judge issued a ruling in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, upholding a federal law protecting Indian remains and ordered the borough to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The order requires the borough to hire an archaeologist to conduct an inventory of the remains.

(Editing by Steve Gorman, Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

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