Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

Nestled in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains lies a charming borough once nicknamed “the Switzerland of America.” But locals call it something else now: Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

You couldn’t miss the name if you tried. There’s a Jim Thorpe Neighborhood Bank, a Jim Thorpe Market, a Jim Thorpe Trolley, and the Jim Thorpe Area High School, whose sports teams are called the Olympians.

The town of Jim Thorpe, Pa.

CBS News

Mayor Michael Sofranko is a lifelong Thorper: “In 1970, when we’d go somewhere and they’d say, ‘Where you from?’ And I’d say, ‘Jim Thorpe, ‘ they’d say, ‘I don’t want your name. I want to know where you live!’ And now, what it has taken on is, when I go somewhere and they’d 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, the man who became famous worldwide after the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won gold medals in track and field events. “Being crowned the ‘Greatest Athlete of the World’ by the King of Sweden, I think, is one of my great moments in my life,” Thorpe once said.

Simon & Schuster

“To call Jim Thorpe the greatest athlete in American history is not a stretch, because no athlete before or since has done what he did,” said writer David Maraniss. He would know; his biography of Thorpe, “Path Lit By Lightning” (published by CBS’ sister company Simon & Schuster, a division of Paramount Global) tells Thorpe’s remarkable story. “No one has had that sort of triad of being the first great NFL football player, a winner of the gold medal in the decathlon and the pentathlon, and a major league baseball player,” Maraniss said. “And he was great at ballroom dancing. He was a good skater, a great swimmer. Lacrosse, definitely. People said he was good at marbles!”

The athlete also became an actor, in such films as “Battling with Buffalo Bill” and “Wagon Master.” And thanks in part to his own activism, Native American characters were increasingly played by Native Americans (himself included).

Prague, Oklahoma was originally Indian territory when Thorpe was born there in 1887, brought up on the Sac and Fox Reservation. His birthname, Wa-Tho-Huk, translates to “Bright Path.”

Jim had passed by the time Anita Thorpe came along, but she’s spent her life learning her grandfather’s story. “People would come up to us and say, ‘Are you related?’ I still get that to this day,” she said. “As a grandchild, I just feel like it’s my honor to carry his name and to continue his story any way that I possibly can.”

Rocca asked, “If your last name is Thorpe, do you have to be good at sports?”

“You do not,” she replied. “None of his descendants could ever fill his shoes.”

And back in Jim Thorpe the town, where tourism is thriving, the story of Jim Thorpe the man, gets a little complicated. For one thing, Thorpe himself never set foot in the town while he was alive.

After he died in 1953, most of his family wanted him buried in Oklahoma. But his widow had other ideas, and she struck a deal: she gave her late husband’s body to a down-on-its-luck region of the Poconos, and the resort town of Jim Thorpe, Pa., was born.

The final resting place of superstar athlete Jim Thorpe, in a Pennsylvania town that now bears his name. 

CBS News

How did that happen? For the full story on America’s greatest athlete and how he ended up buried in a town he never lived in, listen to Mo Rocca’s podcast “Mobituaries.” 

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Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Chad Cardin. 

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