Posts Tagged ‘Robert W. Wheeler’

New Jim Thorpe Movie

May 6, 2016

Yesterday, the ever-vigilant sports statistician Tex Noel sent me a link to an article he thought I’d be interested in reading. As usual, he was correct. The link was to a news article about Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story, a much-needed new movie about Jim Thorpe. The previous major biopic about the world’s greatest athlete, starring Burt Lancaster as the young Thorpe, was released in 1951. Sadly, that dated film came as much from the screenwriter’s imagination as from actual events.


Crowds throng Carlisle Theatre

Abraham Taylor, producer of the new film, is striving for accuracy. He explained, “To tell an authentic Jim Thorpe story we have to maintain control of the project. The only way to do this is with the help of Indian country. We are honored and incredibly grateful for Tuolumne’s partnership on this project.” The reason I believe him—much fluff comes out of Hollywood that is far from the truth—is that Bob Wheeler is involved in the project.

When a grad student at Syracuse nearly a half century ago, Robert W. Wheeler undertook a new approach for writing his thesis: an aural history of Jim Thorpe. He acquired a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder similar to the one that his boss some years later, Howard Cosell, blamed for making him stoop shouldered, and crisscrossed the United States, hitchhiking from one place to another to interview people who knew Thorpe or had experiences with him. The noted Dick Schaap called him “Jim Thorpe’s Boswell” for the thoroughness of his research.

Bob has worked as an unpaid technical advisor for the film for more years than I can remember. Our numerous conversations and emails always dealt with the same thing: getting the details right. My next hope is to see Bob sitting in a director’s chair with a megaphone at his side, scrutinizing each scene for accuracy at Carlisle Barracks, the real-life site of where much of the story told in the film actually took place.


Today’s Event at the National Museum of the American Indian

August 17, 2012

Several decades ago, Robert W. Wheeler then a grad student at Syracuse hitchhiked coast to coast carrying an incredibly heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder to interview acquaintances of Jim Thorpe for his master’s thesis. The project grew as the miles rolled on. His budget, however, didn’t grow. But Bob persevered.

Years—it probably felt like decades—later, he had not just a master’s thesis but a full length biography of the world’s greatest athlete. After reading the book, Dick Schaap referred to Bob as Jim Thorpe’s Boswell, drawing an analogy to the thoroughness of his research in comparison to that done by James Boswell in documenting the life of Samuel Johnson. Since Wheeler’s book was first published, several other biographies of Thorpe have been written but they all draw on the painstaking work done by Wheeler.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is celebrating of the 100th anniversary of Jim Thorpe’s triumphs in the Stockholm Games along with other Native Americans’ participation, many for medals, in the Olympics. The entrance to the exhibit features a blown up photograph of Carlisle Indian Frank Mt. Pleasant broad jumping in his Dickinson College track uniform. Here is a link to information about the exhibit:

Today, Bob Wheeler is giving a talk at the NMAI that I will be attending. Those unable to attend can hear Bob speak on the NMAI’s webcast of the event. Here is a link to the webcast: Also speaking will be Flo Ridlon, Bob’s wife, who played a crucial role in getting Thorpe’s Olympic medals restored. Both are spellbinding speakers. This is an event not to miss.

Like Father, Like Son

December 5, 2011

The title of this message is a bit misleading. Like parents, like son would be more accurate. Rob Wheeler is the son of Robert W. “Bob” Wheeler and Florence “Flo” Ridlon and, like the proverbial apple, didn’t fall far from the tree. Bob is perhaps best known as the author of the definitive biography of Jim Thorpe. Flo is not well known for her greatest discovery, but should be. It was Flo who found a long-lost copy of the rules for the 1912 Olympics misfiled behind a row of books on a shelf in the stacks of the Library of Congress. The rules made possible the restoration of Jim Thorpe’s Olympic medals. Bob and Flo should be better known for their efforts and ultimate success but probably won’t be. Their only child, Rob, has undertaken the task of getting Jim Thorpe’s remains moved to Oklahoma. Philadelphia lawyers are hereby on notice that Rob is on the case.

Rob Wheeler is a senior at MIT double-majoring in Aeronautics and Aerospace Engineering AND Physics, so cannot devote full time to the effort as his parents did for some years in their effort. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to do it all himself as Thorpe family members are heavily involved. It is because of one particular Thorpe that Rob is so dedicated to this task, but you will have to visit Rob’s website,, to learn the details of that relationship.

Rob conceived, designed and maintains the website. His Phi Sigma Kappa brothers, David Somach and Arkady Blyakher, assisted in creating the website. Michael Lehto  provided vital encouragement and technical expertise. Since the website was put on-line, Rob has been interviewed by Native News anchor for, Paul DeMain. That interview can be viewed at

Don’t be surprised if we read more about Rob Wheeler in the news.

Jim Thorpe Biographer to Speak Saturday

October 20, 2010

Although several books written have been written about Jim Thorpe in recent years, little new information has been uncovered about him. The reason for that is that Robert W. Wheeler plowed so deeply when he researched everyone’s All American that little ground remained untouched. Bob spent seven years researching what began as an oral history of the great athlete for his master’s thesis. Most of the people he interviewed who knew or interacted with Thorpe are no longer alive and, thus, not available for other’s to interview. Bob has graciously allowed others to use his interview tapes. Some artifacts, such as scrapbooks, that Wheeler was able to study are now out of the Thorpe family’s hands and, in some cases, held by private collectors who do not make them available to researchers.

So, Big Jim’s recent biographers have stood on Wheeler’s shoulders in more than one way. Put another, perhaps better, way by Freddie Wardecker, there has been little point to anyone else writing a Thorpe biography since Wheeler’s. Dick Schaap put it succinctly when he said, “Robert W. Wheeler is Jim Thorpe’s Boswell.”

Recent Thorpe biographers have been invited to speak in Carlisle, but not Bob Wheeler—until now. He will be speaking at the inaugural Celebrate the Book festival at the Expo Center on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. And I have been given the honor to introduce him. Of course, I was far from the first choice, but due to other people having schedule conflicts and that I was going to be at the festival anyway, I get to do this. I may be doing this because the better choices were busy but that’s OK with me. Bob Wheeler’s odyssey across the country and his experiences along the way could make a separate book. If you’re within a couple of hours of Carlisle, it’s an easy drive. His is a talk not to be missed.

Non-mainstream Books

September 15, 2010

Recently, a young man, who I will call Chapman, a twenty-something who is on his way to becoming a lawyer, described my books as being “non-mainstream” and concluded that I may be strange, for picking such subjects I suppose. While I may be strange, especially to a young person, there is nothing strange about the topics of my books. Perhaps someday he will come to learn that being “non-mainstream” is a good thing. The world doesn’t need another book on Lincoln; it doesn’t even need another one on Jim Thorpe. What is needed are books on people whose contributions should be remembered but won’t if someone doesn’t capture their life stories before they are lost to posterity. I only wish I had undertaken this earlier, while more of them were still alive.

My hat is off to Bob Wheeler for having the vision as a young grad student with no money to first convince his advisor that an aural history of Jim Thorpe was a worthwhile undertaking and then to hitchhike across the country to interview anyone still alive who knew Thorpe. I wish that I had had the vision to interview my grandparents, uncles and aunts when they were still alive, but I didn’t. Not only is part of my family’s history lost, but since few others had the vision to capture their families’ histories, we have lost much of our history collectively.

There are rewards to researching and writing these books, albeit not financial. This enterprise is akin to what the Iowa farmer alluded to when, after winning an $8M lottery and asked what he intended to do, he responded, “Keep on farming as long as the money holds out.” The real rewards come from the satisfaction of having played a small part in helping a families learn more of their own history or, occasionally, helping long-lost family members reconnect. Chapman, if you think Carlisle Indian School football players are an obscure topic, you should watch Book TV on CSPAN2 some weekend. There you will find some really obscure book topics but, if you’re lucky, you’ll also see Robert Caro and come to value his work which is at such a high level that the rest of us can only aspire to reach.

Bob Wheeler Will Be Speaking in Carlisle

August 21, 2010

Yes, Robert W. Wheeler, author of the definitive biography of Jim Thorpe, is coming to Carlisle. On Thursday, the Friends of Bosler Library held a press conference to formally announce the inaugural Celebrate the Book festival to be held on Saturday, October 23 at the Expo Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This will afford readers, sports fans and historians a rare opportunity to meet Bob Wheeler and to hear him speak. He will give a talk and take questions about his book. In many ways, I find how he conducted his research to be even more interesting than Thorpe’s life story.

After convincing his thesis advisor to allow him to write an aural history, a new concept at the time, Wheeler, a grad student with little financial backing, hitchhiked around the country to interview people who had been connected with Thorpe during his lifetime. Interviewing Thorpe was impossible as he died two decades before Wheeler set sail on his odyssey.

Almost everyone he interviewed is now dead and many of the artifacts he perused are no longer available to researchers. He interviewed every one he could think of who had a connection to Thorpe and anyone who would talk with him. Occasionally, it was even necessary to deal with unsavory characters, but he did that because it was necessary to be able to tell Big Jim’s story. He met with anyone from the obscure to President Eisenhower. He was so thorough that Dick Schaap referred to him as “Jim Thorpe’s Boswell.”

But Bob didn’t stop when his book was completed and his degree awarded. He and his new bride, Florence Ridlon, opened an office in what had been a closet in a Washington, DC hotel and worked doggedly to get Jim’s Olympic medals restored. Flo will be on hand to discuss her great find that made medal restoration possible.

Also speaking that day is Dr. Richard Sommers, Sr. Historian at the Military History Institute. In addition to housing military archives, the MHI also holds Carlisle Indian School records due to its having been located on Carlisle Barracks. Visiting the MHI and meeting Dr. Sommers are musts for anyone researching the Carlisle Indian School.

Y’all come and see us on October 23. More information can be found at

New Jim Thorpe Biography

July 10, 2010

Yet another biography of Jim Thorpe is to be released soon. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. has announced that Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford will be released in October. Ms. Buford is the author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life. Buford’s reputation and history suggest that her book will be better than the other recent attempts at chronicling the great athlete’s life. Was she able to gain access to Jim Thorpe’s scrapbooks? It is believed that Robert W. Wheeler was the last Thorpe biographer to have them available for his research. They are now in the hands of a well-known collector of sports artifacts who doesn’t generally allow researchers to see them.

One thing that is sure is that the Kate Buford didn’t have access to the vast majority of the people Wheeler interviewed due to their demise during the intervening years. However, Wheeler taped his interviews on a bulky tape recorder that he lugged as he hitchhiked across the country to interview anyone he could find who had a relationship with Thorpe. He has made the recording of his interview with former West Point cadet Dwight David Eisenhower available to others, but even that hasn’t stopped other authors from writing inaccuracies about the 1912 Carlisle-Army game.

I am curious to learn more about Big Jim’s eye disease. Recently, I learned that he had eye surgery while at Carlisle. About all I have uncovered so far is that he was hospitalized for three days. Nothing was stated about the reason for the surgery. The medical records from his student file are long gone. Perhaps the person who took them or his descendants will return them or at least make their contents public. There are still things to learn about Jim Thorpe. This fall, we will see if this new biography shares any of them.

Jim Thorpe 1912 Olympics Postcard

May 24, 2010

A postcard that Jim Thorpe sent to a childhood friend from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics is being offered for sale. Front and back views of the postcard are provided below.

Luther Hood, recipient of the card, was an Absentee Shawnee and a good friend of the Thorpe family. The families continue a strong friendship today. In tribal culture when a relative dies the family adopts someone to take that person’s place. It seems that Luther may have been an adopted brother to Jim Thorpe, who lost several very close family members, including his twin brother, when he was young. That is why he would have used the terms “Bud” and “Bro.”

The stamp on the card is from Sweden. Closer inspection is required to determine the postmark. The U. S. Olympic team, other than the distance runners and Thorpe, used the ship they traveled over on, the SS Finland, as their hotel during the Olympics. Perhaps the postcard was sent from the Finland.

Bob Wheeler is assisting the owner of what is surely an expensive item in selling it. If you are interested, contact Bob at


Jim Thorpe Fitness Center

March 16, 2009

Not long ago it was my pleasure to inform readers that Carlisle, PA isn’t the only town to have Jim Thorpe on a mural. Now I can share that Carlisle Barracks isn’t the location of the only Jim Thorpe Fitness Center. Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU, Haskell Institute in Big Jim’s day) also has a Jim Thorpe Fitness Center. In fact, Haskell has had a Jim Thorpe Fitness Center for a couple of years – in a building constructed and named after the great athlete 50 years ago. A sign that formerly adorned the building’s exterior now hints to the building’s former use now hangs inside the building.

On Monday, March 9, 2009, Robert W. Wheeler, author of “Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete,” gave a talk at the re-dedication of the Jim Thorpe Fitness Center as part of the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Haskell’s founding. The building formerly known as the Jim Thorpe Power Plant now houses machines designed to help humans maintain their muscle tone rather than machines to eliminate the need for human muscle power.

In the audience was someone who also is familiar with Carlisle. Before joining the faculty of the University of Kansas, Bernie Kish was executive director for the College Football Hall of Fame for a decade. I met Dr. Kish there when researching Lone Star Dietz. Bernie recalled his time in Carlisle:

“I was a career military officer, serving in the US Army for over 29 years. In 1981, I attended the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks—the site of the Carlisle Indian School—in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was my privilege to play basketball in the same gymnasium and run laps on the same track as Thorpe, Lone Star, and Gus Welch. The biggest annual extra-curricular event at the War College is Jim Thorpe Sports Day. It is competition in ten sports among the military’s senior service schools, the Army, Navy and Air Force War Colleges plus the National War College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. For two days, these future generals forget their military studies and compete for the honor of taking home the Jim Thorpe Sports Day Trophy. I was the Athletic Director for the 1982 Sports Day and in that capacity came to know Carl Thorpe, Jim’s son, quite well. I still treasure the photo of Carl and me presenting the Sports Day awards.”


Jaycees’ Petition

November 6, 2008

I had occasion to talk with Robert W. Wheeler, the author of the definitive biography of Jim Thorpe, and used this opportunity to discuss the hearings, the Jaycees, etc. Bob does not know Mr. Sheaffer so cannot comment on his efforts. However, in 1978 he had significant contact with the Jaycees on a national level, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Almost immediately after Jim Thorpe’s Olympic honors were stripped from him in 1913, campaigns were started to restore his medals and his records. Bob recalled that what seemed like hundreds of campaigns involving were such people as Damon Runyon, FDR, and Branch Rickey, but all were unsuccessful. The unsuccessful list includes the one Sheaffer mentioned that was from Yale, OK and was headed by Grace Thorpe.

In 1978, the Jaycees redoubled their efforts and gathered over a million signatures on a petition to have Jim Thorpe’s Olympics triumphs restored. Bo Wheeler recalls that the Jaycees’ petitions were a major part of the nationwide effort which gathered over three and a half million signatures. As part of this effort Bob Wheeler and Jack Thorpe addressed the Jaycees’ national convention. Unfortunately, that was not the year of the final breakthrough. That would happen a few years later when Bob’s wife and researcher-in-her-own-right, Florence Ridlon, found the 1912 Olympic rule book lost in the stacks of the Library of Congress. The rest, as they say, is history.