Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

A Penfield man’s journey shines bright light on Jim Thorpe’s legacy

A Penfield man’s journey shines bright light on Jim Thorpe’s legacy

There are still miles to go before he sleeps, but indefatigable Bob Wheeler can finally see the finish line. A 65-year-long odyssey to ensure that Jim Thorpe receives his historical due—not only as arguably the finest athlete of all-time, but as a courageous and compassionate American hero—is nearing its final stages.

Next summer, filming is scheduled to begin on a movie based on Wheeler’s superb book, “Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete.” Adapted by director/screenwriter Abraham Taylor and backed by Hollywood heavyweights such as Angelina Jolie and “Fences” producer Todd Black, “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story” is tentatively scheduled to hit theaters in 2021. And when it does, generations—new and old—will learn the true story of the former Olympic gold medalist and football pioneer who overcame crushing obstacles as a Native American in an era when our government and society was hell-bent on eradicating their culture.

“Jim Thorpe’s life is in many respects a painful story because of the treatment he and other Native Americans were forced to endure in the late 19th century, early 20th century,’’ Taylor said. “But it’s also an incredibly powerful and inspiring story. And, quite frankly, it’s probably a story that couldn’t have been told without Bob’s exhaustive research and generosity of spirit. His understanding of Thorpe’s life is unparalleled. No one knows more about Thorpe than Bob does, and no one has been a greater champion of Thorpe’s legacy.”

And to think this all began in Penfield many moons ago when Wheeler’s dad gave him a book about the world’s greatest athletes and 10-year-old Bob stumbled upon Thorpe. A seed was planted, and it would germinate years later on a trip back from Yankee Stadium with his parents. As they trekked toward Rochester, Wheeler convinced them to take a detour to Jim Thorpe, Pa. They eventually found the run-down mausoleum where Thorpe was buried.

This rekindled Wheeler’s interest, and when he returned home he went to Rundel Library to learn more about his boyhood hero. His research put him in touch with Leo Lyons, one of the founders of the Rochester Jeffersons, a charter member of the National Football League, which was started by Thorpe in 1920. Lyons got to know Thorpe when the former Canton Bulldogs football star became the league’s first commissioner, and the former Jeffersons owner/coach helped Wheeler compile a list of Thorpe contemporaries to interview.

In the summer of 1966, as part of his research for a master’s degree in history at Syracuse University, Wheeler began hitch-hiking across America in search of those who knew Thorpe. He lugged his suitcase and bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder to 28 states, logging more than 12,000 miles while interviewing nearly 200 people, including President Dwight Eisenhower, who played football against Thorpe, while attending West Point; actor Burt Lancaster, who portrayed the legendary athlete in a 1951 feature film, and a 104-year-old teacher who had Thorpe as a student at the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School.

“It was the most wondrous journey of my life,’’ said Wheeler, who will speak at Gonondagan on Sept. 7 at 2 p.m. “I joke that I left home with $200 in my pocket and returned home with $200 in my pocket. People were just incredible. When I told them what I was doing, most responded enthusiastically. Many offered meals and transportation and places to stay.”

Wheeler would use material culled from his treasure trove of interviews to write his master’s thesis. And that thesis would be the basis for his definitive Thorpe biography several years later. One person who opened his heart and wallet during the cross-country trip was Eisenhower. That interview took place in Gettysburg, and it was “like listening to your grandfather tell stories.” When they finished chatting, Ike gave Wheeler a $20 bill because he didn’t like to see young people hitch-hike.

Wheeler would encounter similar kindness when he popped into Wardecker’s, a menswear store in downtown Carlisle. Haberdasher James Wardecker was more than happy to help. He immediately phoned his son, Fred, and asked him to take the next two days off from work so he could drive Wheeler around town to speak to local residents who had first-hand knowledge of Thorpe and legendary Carlisle football coach Pop Warner.

Nearly a half-century later, as he was beginning to research his Thorpe movie, Taylor visited Wardecker’s. Fred wound up regaling Taylor with stories about Thorpe, and at the end of their conversation told him: “You really should talk to Bob Wheeler.” Wardecker gave him Wheeler’s phone number. Taylor called, and knew within minutes that he needed to bring Bob aboard.

“Bob’s passion was infectious,’’ Taylor said. “You could feel the love he had for Jim and how important it was for him to get this story told on a wide scale. We wound up talking for four hours, and he invited me to spend some time at their home so we could talk further. That was really the launching point for all of this. Bob’s generous sharing of knowledge and contacts has been nothing short of extraordinary.”

Wheeler felt a kinship from the start. Here were two men bonded by a story that needed to be told. “That Abraham would walk into that same store four decades later, and Fred would graciously connect him to me was just another indication that the telling of Jim’s story was truly meant to be,” Wheeler said.

As Taylor mentioned, no one knows more about Thorpe or has been more devoted to his legacy than Wheeler. If the Penfield High School graduate had done nothing more than write the definitive biography of Thorpe, that would have been enough. But Wheeler didn’t stop there. He and his wife, Florence, wound up quitting their jobs to form the Jim Thorpe Foundation in 1982, using proceeds from the sales of his book. They struggled financially, but pushed on, as Bob made ends meet by caddying at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md.

They were a true team, and their persistence would be rewarded in 1982 when Florence stumbled upon an old Olympic rule book amid a stack of books in the Library of Congress. She discovered a legal technicality that prompted the International Olympic Committee to restore the gold medals it had stripped from Thorpe because he had violated the rules of amateurism by playing semi-pro baseball before competing in the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe had died 30 years before Florence’s needle-in-the-haystack discovery, but his grown children were able to attend a ceremony in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, 1983 in which the IOC presented them with replica medals. Thorpe’s kids invited the Wheelers to attend. That same year, Bob and Florence gathered 3.5-million signatures in a petition drive that convinced the U.S. Postal Service to honor Thorpe with a stamp.

This family tradition is being carried on by the Wheelers’ son, Rob, who is working on behalf of Thorpe’s relatives to get the Native American’s remains returned from Jim Thorpe, Pa. to his Oklahoma birthplace.

“I cannot fathom a better way to honor Mr. Thorpe’s legacy than naming a town after him,’’ Rob Wheeler said in a recent speech. “The only thing the Sac and Fox Nation is seeking are his physical remains. I hope that even if Mr. Thorpe’s remains are returned, the citizens of Jim Thorpe, Pa. will continue to honor (him). Relinquishing his remains would not change anything in the town. It would still be Jim Thorpe, Pa. Today, there are 42 towns named after President Lincoln. Yet, President Lincoln’s remains reside in Springrield, Ill.”

The Wheelers hope “Bright Path” will shed light on Thorpe’s tireless efforts to help indigenous people overcome their obstacles. Thorpe’s celebrity as a transcendent sports star opened up acting opportunities for him, and he used his Hollywood connections to create job opportunities for Native Americans in numerous films, particularly Westerns. There also are scores of stories about Thorpe digging into his wallet and opening up his home to help those in need.

“There is a word from Jim’s tribe that became associated with him,’’ Wheeler said. “The word is ‘akapamata.’ It means ‘caregiver.’ And the more I read about Jim and the more people I interviewed through the years that knew him, that word fit him to a tee. Of all the things Jim was, the thing he was most of all was a caregiver.”

The same could be said of Bob Wheeler. His devotion to and care of Thorpe’s legacy has led him on a remarkable journey. A bright path, indeed.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.