History is often taught as the story of events or movements, or through stories centered around dates on which natural disasters occurred. Human history is all those things, but it is fundamentally the story of men and women of flesh and blood, people who were and are neither plaster saints, nor cardboard-cutout villains.
Further, even the most well documented lives and events contain unsolved mysteries. That is certainly the case for the most notable Olympian of the modern era — a saga touching the highest levels of individual athletic achievement, featuring possible diversion of evidence by law enforcement or others, family struggles and imperfect “happy” endings.
In competition held 100 years ago, Jim Thorpe of Oklahoma won, for the United States, gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon at the Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
The two competitions distilled both ancient and modern competitions, including long jump, javelin, 200-meter dash, discuss thrown, 1500-meter run, and other events. Thorpe won four of the five pentathlon events, and three of the 10 decathlon competitions, far outdistancing opponents.
The world’s greatest athlete?
When King Gustav of Sweden presented a special honor for his stunning athleticism, the monarch shook Thorpe’s hand and said, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe allegedly responded, “Thanks, King.”
The medals presented to Thorpe were solid gold, the last time that was true of the top honors in the Olympic Games.
Thorpe was a legend even before the Stockholm competition. He had played college football and run track for one of the greatest coaches of all time, Pop Warner and the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indians. In 1911, Carlisle upset Harvard and beat Army, to win the national collegiate football title.
After his Olympic success, reporters learned that the young man from a poor background had played semi-professional baseball, for about $5 a game, to earn summer money. So did other players, apparently under assumed names. They never gained the scrutiny the Indian lad from rural Oklahoma did.
In a sequence of events that shocked sports fans at the time, the International Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe of his medals. They were returned to Sweden and, at some point in subsequent decades, lost.
Thorpe went on to play professional baseball, basketball and football, becoming both the best player and the top executive of what became the National Football League.
Thorpe is the subject of several books, including a biography by one of his defenders, Robert W. Wheeler.
Born to a woman of mixed Indian/French descent, and an Irish Catholic father with Sac and Fox blood, Jim grew up in Sac and Fox tribal areas of what became the 46th American state.
He was baptized Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe. Jim was married three times, and died in 1953. The Associated Press and several other groups named him the greatest athlete of the first half of the Twentieth Century; then one of the three greatest competitors of the entire century.
Thorpe said he never knew he had done something wrong in pre-Olympics baseball, and most Americans believed him. The Oklahoma Legislature pressed for restoration of his medals, along with other defenders, but the effort languished into the 1970s.
Eighty years after his Olympic medals were taken away, they were restored after a final push from William E. Simon, during his tenure as head of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Thorpe family was given medals cast from molds of the originals, which remain missing.
Tex Brown and the Thorpe memorabilia
Here enters into the Thorpe’s story a man of some mystery, a fellow who admired but never knew Jim Thorpe, and about whom no books have been written.
Harold Vernon “Tex” Brown lived an intriguing life of his own. After growing up in Texas, and getting an outstanding education due to his family’s resources, his archeological work impacted scholarly analysis of the Comancheros. That research led him in a roundabout way to Oklahoma.
Tex made his home near Yale, Oklahoma – also Thorpe’s chosen hometown (and site of the restored home where Jim had lived with his first wife). Tex passionately advocated for preservation of state history – and for restoration of Thorpe’s Olympic honors.
Working with some of the greatest legends in Oklahoma sports, Tex established the state’s original Jim Thorpe Awards. He was a leading force in starting an athletic committee that became the Jim Thorpe Memorial Athletic Hall of Fame Commission, aiming to preserve Thorpe’s memorabilia, and to honor contemporary athletes worthy of awards bearing his name.
Tex served for a time as chairman of the Memorial Commission, but drew the critical scrutiny of John Rogers, then the state’s elected Auditor and Inspector. After Rogers’ blistering audit of the commission found “several discrepancies” in how commission funds were being handled, a state representative named Frank Keating (a Tulsa Republican) called for further study of the Memorial Commission.
In due course, Governor David Boren, a Democrat, fired Tex for “inefficiency and neglect of duty.” There were assertions that Thorpe memorabilia was not being properly preserved and protected, and that U.S. Mint-produced medals honoring Thorpe’s achievements had been used improperly. Tex Brown’s time in direct public service was short-lived, but eventually that controversy faded from popular memory.
Whatever might have been sins of commission or omission, Tex had many redeeming qualities. He fought to restore Thorpe’s good name (and amateur status) decades before that became a cause celebre around the world.
Ultimately, in 1983, imperfect justice came. Jim’s family got gold medals – those replicas cast from original molds. The missing originals remain one of the unsolved mysteries about Thorpe and his legacy.
Recently, the replicas have traveled across the nation and soon will be displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in the nation’s capital.
As for Tex, in his prime the blue-eyed white man (whose prose sometimes belied his Ivy League education) said in interviews that Thorpe was almost certainly a victim of bigotry in the Olympics situation. Tex advocated for the rights of his Native American neighbors long before that became fashionable.
The Cold Case
In 1977, Tex’s closest female companion surrendered to an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) agent a cache of Thorpe memorabilia, with an understanding that “proper identification” would be made. Those items (with misspellings as in the original document) were described as follows:
“1. Silver medallian, bearing picture of Jim Thorpe, dated 1888-1953. Approx four inch in diameter.”
“2. Gold colo red medallian, bearing picture of Jim Thorpe, apprOx 4 in diameter.
“3. Jim Thorpe silver colored medallian encased in gold colored fringe, appr x three in diameter.
“4. Three other various size Jim Thorpe medals.”
The un-notarized document dated June 25, 1977 was attested to by a witnessing police sergeant. Tex’s heirs in the family of his beloved companion have no record of what became of those items.
Despite the stormy end to his tenure at the Memorial/Commission, Tex retained a legion of ardent admirers, including the storied Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) basketball coach Henry “Hank” Iba, Bertha Frank Teague (still considered the greatest women’s basketball coach in state history), Frank Boggs (one of the most honored sports writers ever to work for The Oklahoman) and many others.
Tex, Iba, Teague and Boggs have all died now. Their memories live on, though not at Thorpe’s level.
New legal proceedings touching on the mysterious missing Thorpe memorabilia emerged after the November 30, 2011 death of Denice Lynn Tindall, the daughter of Josephine Aletha (Goucher) Tindall.
Jo [Josephine] Tindall had lived for many years with Tex Brown before his death in 1986. In 1988 at the town of Yale, citizens erected a monument to Tex’s memory, listing among his many attributes his devotion to clearing Thorpe’s good name and getting those medals restored.
In a legal filing on Wednesday (June 13, 2012), Denice’s estate seeks return of precious, perhaps invaluable, Jim Thorpe memorabilia, items which are at this time in possession of a member of the extended Goucher family, of which Denice’s mother (Jo) was a member.
The attorney representing Denice’s estate is Jacqueline Marie (Goucher) Short – the daughter of Sam Goucher, brother of Eldon Goucher, and of Jo (Goucher) Tindale (Tex’s longtime companion and mother of Denice).
Whatever sports memorabilia he had, or had ever had, Tex left to Jo; who left it to Denice. Denice clearly wanted it to go to the Goucher family, in which there are now a total of 21 heirs. The family wants Short to get the memorabilia back.
Jo had much of the memorabilia in her possession when Tex died. However, attorney Short wrote in the recent filing in Oklahoma City district court, “In approximately 1987, Ms. Tindall’s brother, Eldon Goucher of Enid … insisted that it would be wise for him to take the memorabilia for safe keeping as he expressed concern that such valuable items would be stolen. …”
Jo passed away in 1997. Eldon died in 1998. Sam (Short’s father) left this world in 1999.
Eldon’s widow, Annette, “became the caretaker of the sports memorabilia in question. The heirs of Denice … have not seen the memorabilia but have heard about it for years. The heirs desire to reunite the items, which are thought to be unique, with other Jim Thorpe memorabilia for all the world to enjoy. According to one newspaper article the memorabilia may even be the original 1912 gold medals. Tex Brown acquired the memorabilia while traveling in Europe. No one recalls the exact date of his trip to Europe.”
Short wrote in her court submission, “Annette Goucher admits to having possession of the personal property belonging to the Estate of Denice” – specifically, Thorpe medallions, medals, molds and other items. “Annette Goucher admits that she and her heirs have no claims to ownership to the items. However, Annette Goucher is determined to keep the memorabilia for herself and her heirs.
“She claims that she should be able to keep the items because she cared for Jo Tindall in her last days of dying with cancer. Yet, Annette Goucher allowed relatives to search in a storage building where is stored items behind a rent house. There was nothing there but old junk. Annette … maintains at this time she cannot find where she put the items for safe keeping. And, now she asserts that even if she finds the items she won’t give them to the heirs.”
Although Annette has said, according to Short, she will give the memorabilia to the Thorpe Museum, “The museum director, Justin Lenhart, has expressed that in his opinion the memorabilia belongs to the Estate [of Jo’s heir, Denice]. However, he stated that the museum may be interested in acquiring it by donation or purchase.”
Based on the fact that Annette admits having no ownership in the material, despite her present posture, Short has asked the district court to issue a draft Order in which Annette would agree that “when or if the items are found, they will be given to the heirs of Denice Lynn Tindall to dispose of properly.”
In an album of pictures and news articles in Short’s possession there are, from happier times, a picture of Jo and Tex with then-Governor Boren, before Tex was ousted as chairman of the Thorpe Museum/Hall of Fame Commission.
There is also a picture of Jo and her daughter Denice, in a group photo with Annette and Eldon. It was taken on the day that Hank Iba and hundreds of other friends and admirers of Tex gathered at the Thorpe ancestral home in Yale, to dedicate a granite monument honoring Tex’s efforts to honor the legendary athlete, and preserve Oklahoma history. (In one photo can be seen a youthful Blake Wade, a notable advocate of historic preservation now advocating for completion of American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City.)
In Goucher family lore, the Thorpe material is described as stored in old square cardboard boxes, much like those seen every week in the popular television crime series, “Cold Case.” As for any items that may or may not still be in possession of the OSBI, it’s unclear how such things are maintained.
The Legend and the Mystery
Jim Thorpe remains a ubiquitous presence in his native state, where a museum on North Lincoln Boulevard near the state Capitol bears his name and a heroic larger-than-life statue. Inside the Capitol building, an acclaimed portrait by Charles Banks Wilson lifts Thorpe up as one of the four greatest Oklahomans of all time – along with Robert S. Kerr, the Cherokee linguist Sequoyah and Will Rogers.
The athlete’s legacy lives in other ways, including the Jim Thorpe Native American Games, a week of competition held in and around Oklahoma City in wake of the annual Red Earth festivities, and coinciding with the Sovereignty Symposium of legal analysts and advocates.
This year’s competition included basketball title games with girls’ teams like the Cheyenne & Arapaho Respect against the Alabama Quassarte on Thursday (June 14), a Friday night (June 15) boys’ football contest between East and West all-stars, and Saturday (June 16) martial arts jousts at the Santa Fe Family Life Center in north Oklahoma City.
In the Spanish language, the literal meaning of “Santa Fe” is “Holy Way.” Not that far off, perhaps, from the meaning of Jim Thorpe’s Sac and Fox name – “Wa-Tho-Huk” or “Bright Path.”
Bright path, holy way. Maybe there is something to that.
This little noticed case in Oklahoma City’s district court could, if assertions of the Goucher family are correct, lead to one of the most significant developments surrounding Thorpe’s legacy in recent years, nurturing efforts to uplift and sustain the memory and legacy of the greatest athlete in Oklahoma history.
Not surprisingly for a place passionate about sports, people in Oklahoma still care about one of the greatest athletes ever to strive for excellence.
This cold case could get hot.