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Persistence of a Penfield man and his wife bring justice to Jim Thorpe’s Olympic legacy

Persistence of a Penfield man and his wife bring justice to Jim Thorpe’s Olympic legacy

Their wedding vows included traditional phrases such as “in sickness and in health” and “for richer or poorer,” but made no mention about a husband’s obsession with Jim Thorpe and a crusade to end one of sports’ most painful and long-standing injustices.

That was OK with Flo Ridlon. By the time she arrived at the altar in 1971, she was well aware she would be marrying into Bob Wheeler’s obsession. Over time, his cause became hers, and, together they would embark upon a journey that would right a terrible wrong.

Two weeks ago, 40 years after Flo’s detective work provided Bob with the vital, missing piece of information needed to get Thorpe’s Olympic medals restored, the couple received word the International Olympic Committee was revising its record books to list the Native-American legend as the sole winner of the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden.

“It’s been such a long and personal journey for us, and, in some ways, it still seems somewhat surreal,’’ Flo said recently via phone from their home in the Syracuse suburb of Liverpool.

“When we received the letter from the IOC, we choked up and shed some tears. Forty years is a long time, but we never gave up hope because we thought the evidence in his favor was irrefutable and support kept building.”

The first step in this long and winding road actually was taken 68 years ago, when Bob’s father gave him a book about Thorpe and a seed was planted in the fertile mind of a 10-year-old boy. Several years later, on a trip back to Penfield from Yankee Stadium, Bob convinced his parents to take a detour to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. They eventually found the mausoleum where the man regarded as the greatest athlete of the 20th century is buried.

This prompted a trip to the Rundel Library to learn more about Thorpe. Eventually, Bob’s research put him in touch with Leo Lyons, the founder and coach of the Rochester Jeffersons, charter members of the National Football League, which was spearheaded by Thorpe in 1920. Lyons regaled Bob with colorful stories about those pioneering pro football days and provided him with a list of other Thorpe contemporaries to interview.

In the summer of 1967, as part of his research for a master’s degree in history at Syracuse University, Bob began hitchhiking 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 D. Eisenhower, who played football against Thorpe while at West Point; actor Burt Lancaster, who portrayed the legendary athlete in the 1951 feature film Jim Thorpe: All American; and a 104-year-old teacher who taught Thorpe in his youth at the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indian Industrial School.

The treasure trove of interviews yielded more than enough material for a master’s thesis and become the basis for Bob’s definitive Thorpe biography, published in 1981. That coast-to-coast journey across America also sparked Bob’s desire to get Thorpe’s medals restored posthumously by the IOC, which had stripped him of his two golds after it was revealed he had been paid to play minor-league baseball.

In 1981, following a decade as a highly successful publicist for ABC and Fox Sports, Bob quit his job, and he and Flo formed the Jim Thorpe Foundation. They struggled financially for several years but pushed on. To make ends meet, Bob worked a series of odd jobs, including caddying at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland.

“I’d always been 100 percent committed to the cause because Bob’s passion was infectious and what had been done to Jim was egregious,’’ said Flo, an accomplished author who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Syracuse. “But by the time we established the foundation, I was 200 percent committed. I was all in – and then some.”

Flo and Bob became an indefatigable team, and their persistence would be rewarded in 1982 when she stumbled upon an old Olympic rule book amid a stack of books in the deep and dusty recesses of the Library of Congress. She discovered a legal technicality that prompted the IOC to restore Thorpe’s medals. On Jan. 18, 1983 – thirty years after the great athlete’s death – Thorpe’s children attended a ceremony in Los Angeles in which the IOC presented them with replica medals. They were so grateful about Flo’s needle-in-the-haystack discovery and Bob’s relentless pursuit of justice on their father’s behalf that they invited the couple to join them at the ceremony. That same year, Bob and Flo gathered 3.5-million signatures in a petition drive that convinced the U.S. Postal Service to honor Thorpe with a stamp.

For many, that would have been the end of the story. Quest over. Mission accomplished. But Bob and Flo believed there was much more work to be done. Driven to get Thorpe recognized as the sole champion of the pentathlon and decathlon, they also wanted to tell the true and complete story about Thorpe and how his heroism extended well beyond the track and football field. Working with Bright Path Strong — a Native-American foundation named for the English translation of Thorpe’s tribal name — the couple was able to reenergize the movement.

There have been many heroes and “sheroes” in this drama. Among them is Anita DeFrantz, the first woman and Black member of the IOC. She found her passion for the case after being contacted and educated about Thorpe by Bob and Flo. “Like many, Anita assumed that when Jim’s medals were restored, he became acknowledged as the sole winner in the record books instead of as a co-winner,’’ Bob said. “She couldn’t believe that wasn’t the case, and that lit a fire within her to get this fixed.”

Thanks to her efforts and the efforts of scores of other individuals and organizations, justice was finally served. “It’s really been the personification of teamwork,’’ Bob said. “So many people had a hand in this. So many people wanted Jim to receive his just due.”

None more so than Bob and Flo.

Despite their incredible advocacy and achievements, they still feel as if there are miles to go, before they sleep. They are continuing work on a feature film about Thorpe that they hope conveys the remarkable courage the Native-American athlete/activist displayed while confronting racists who sought to eradicate his culture. It will explore how Thorpe, like many Native children, was taken from his ancestral land in Oklahoma and forced to attend Carlisle, where the white superintendent’s motto was: “Kill the Indian; save the man.”

The movie will highlight the pivotal role Thorpe played in launching the NFL, and how he used his Hollywood connections as an actor to create job opportunities for indigenous people in numerous films, especially during the Great Depression. It also will touch upon the thousands of appearances Thorpe made nationwide at school assemblies, where he provided messages of hope and encouragement. Told, too, will be stories of Thorpe’s generosity, including the frequent occasions when he dug into his wallet to help those in need.

“His tribe (the Sac and Fox Nation) used a word that became synonymous with him,’’ Bob said. “The word is akapamata, which means “caregiver,” and it fit him to a tee.”

It is also a good word to describe Bob and Flo — the husband-and-wife team whose passion and perseverance fulfilled an unspoken vow of righting a terrible wrong.

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