Carlisle had two celebrity visitors yesterday. Robert W. Wheeler and his wife, Florence Ridlon, dropped in at Wardecker’s Mens Wear to buy Bob a suit. Some might think it odd for a person who lives in Sandy Shores, Texas to drive to Carlisle on such an errand. However, it was a return trip for Bob, although close to 40 years in the making. What began as a master’s degree thesis in the late 1960s became a seven-year odyssey to research the life of America’s greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe. Bob’s research was not supported by a foundation grant and, as a graduate student at Syracuse University, he had few personal financial resources and found it necessary to travel across the country by hitchhiking. After he arrived at “The Capital,” as the haberdashery was known when Thorpe patronized it, “Muck” Wardecker dispatched his son, Freddie, the current owner, to chauffeur Bob around the area to interview Thorpe’s old friends. This time Bob and Florence drove themselves to Carlisle.
Much has happened in the intervening decades. For starters, Bob’s master’s thesis became the book, Jim Thorpe: world’s greatest athlete. However, getting college credit for writing the book was not automatic. That is a story best left to Bob to tell. After publication, the book got rave reviews. Dick Schaap compared Wheeler to James Boswell, the author of what has been considered the best biography ever written for any person. Bob got married but his interest in Thorpe did not wane. In fact, his bride, Florence Ridlon, became involved with the effort. One day in a musty archive, Florence found something that would have a major impact on the sports world.
She found the rules for the 1912 Olympics. In those rules she saw that challenges had to be filed within 30 days of the Olympics. The challenge that caused Thorpe to be stripped of his medals was filed almost six months after the Olympics and should not have been allowed. Getting Thorpe’s medals restored was not a simple matter and that story is best left for Bob and Florence to tell, also. Suffice to say that we will always be indebted to them for what they accomplished – and it wasn’t easy.
After having a son in 1989, Bob decided to quit his glamorous job with ABC Sports and work with Florence in their public relations business based out of Texas so that he could be involved in the rearing of his child. Their son is now a tennis star at MIT and they are on the road to watch him play some matches in the northeast.
Bob is making an audiobook with Frank Gifford narrating. Interviews with people such as President Eisenhower will be included as what I would call making of material. I can’t wait for that to come out.
Also visiting with Bob and Florence was Carlisle’s own Dick Darr, who played at Syracuse alongside Florence’s brother, Jim Ridlon. Perhaps we can get an interview with Dick some day to discuss his competition for the tailback position with an upstart named Jim Brown.
It is hoped that Bob and Florence will honor Carlisle with a talk sometime in the future now that they have reason to pass this way again.