On this day in 1982: In Lausanne, Switzerland, the International Olympic Committee restores two gold medals won by the late Jim Thorpe.
Thorpe, an American Indian voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the century, won medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 games at Stockholm. A few months later, however, a newspaper revealed that Thorpe had been paid $2 a game to play semipro baseball with the Rocky Mount Railroaders. The practice was common among collegians at the time, but the IOC declared Thorpe a professional, wiped out his records and reclaimed his medals. Almost three decades after his death a campaign led by his descendants persuades the IOC to reverse its decision.
On this day in 1989: Lawyer Thomas Root blacks out while flying his Cessna 210 on a business trip from Washington to Rocky Mount. Tailed by 19 military planes for four hours, Root winds up ditching in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas and is rescued, suffering from a mysterious gunshot wound in the abdomen. He speculates the .32-caliber handgun in the plane’s glove compartment may have gone off on impact, although Smith & Wesson says this is impossible.
On March 2, 1933, a train pulled into the station in Rocky Mount, unloaded the body of a newlywed septuagenarian… and J. Edgar Hoover became director of the FBI.
Well, the story is a bit more involved, but here goes, according to “J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets” by Curt Gentry (2011):
“Tom Walsh, a confirmed bachelor since the death of his first wife in 1917, had remarried, taking as his bride a member of one of Cuba’s most prominent families. After the wedding… in Havana, the pair had flown to Florida. Feeling ill, Walsh had consulted a doctor in Daytona Beach, who treated him for indigestion. The pair had then boarded the train for Washington and the inauguration [of Franklin D. Roosevelt]. Shortly after 7 a.m… Mrs. Walsh had wakened to find the senator lying face down on the floor next to his berth. By the time a doctor could be found, Walsh was dead. A physician in Rocky Mount listed cause of death as ‘unknown, possibly coronary thrombosis’….
“Apparently the 72-year-old attorney general-designate [and former Montana senator] had died following a too strenuous honeymoon with a much younger bride….”
(Or maybe he was the victim of a Cuban political conspiracy….)
Walsh made it clear his first act as AG would be a housecleaning at the Bureau of lnvestigation, starting with director J. Edgar Hoover. Instead, Hoover used his serendipitous reprieve to ingratiate himself with Walsh’s successor and to lock up what turned out to be a lifetime appointment as FBI director.
Launching pad for the fast-food apple turnover and the “I Have a Dream” speech…. home of the pro baseball team that cost Jim Thorpe his gold medals… birthplace of Kaye Gibbons and Allan Gurganus, Phil Ford and Julius Peppers, Mike Easley and Roy Cooper, Thelonious Monk and Kay Kyser, Buck Leonard and Sugar Ray Leonard… source of the Electra-piano played by John Lennon in “Imagine”… site of North Carolina’s first sit-down barbecue joint…writing retreat for Jack Kerouac….
Is there no end to the notable and footnotable distinctions dotting Rocky Mount’s civic CV? And here’s yet another, courtesy of Rocky Mount-reared fiction writer Megan Mayhew Bergman, blogging for Kenyon Review:
“Kerouac’s time in Rocky Mount wound its way into other Beat work.
“Allen Ginsberg namedrops Rocky Mount in his epic poem Howl, writing of those ‘who retired to Mexico to cultivate a habit, or Rocky Mount to tender Buddha or Tangiers to boys or Southern Pacific to the black locomotive or Harvard to Narcissus to Woodlawn to the daisychain or grave.’ ”
— Why are Robert E. Lee‘s descendants playing keep-away with historians?
— Four towns remember their minor league pasts, while one longs for a minor league future.
— After Appomattox, a scourge of suicide, divorce and debt.
— Montford Point Marines look for recognition given Tuskegee Airmen.
— “Seven Wonders of Charlotte” inexplicably omits visitor-vexing intersection.
On this day in 1956: Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation icon-in-the-making, sits down at his sister’s kitchen table in Rocky Mount and begins writing a novel.
Since Kerouac, 33, arrived last spring he has been drinking moonshine, suffering nightmares about H-bombs and waiting for a publisher to accept his oft-spurned “On the Road.”
With his hosts away on a trip, Kerouac begins filling a tiny pocket notebook with the story of his brother Gerard’s death a year earlier. Fueled with benzedrine, he will write furiously for 15 straight nights. After each session he walks across a cotton field to a pine forest to meditate with his brother-in-law’s hunting dogs. He sleeps in a sleeping bag on a cot on the back porch with the windows wide open.
When the manuscript is finished, he will write a friend that it is “a beaut, my best. . . . Enuf to make Shakespeare raise an eyebrow.”
Reviewers are less enthralled. When “Visions of Gerard” is finally published in 1963, Newsweek calls it the work of a “a tin-ear Canuck,” while The New York Times Book Review dismisses it as “garrulous hipster yawping.”
“For years, whenever I returned to New York from visits to North Carolina and failed to bubble with enthusiasm while reporting on my barbecue eating to the displaced Carolinians I knew, they would question me about precisely where in the state I had been.
“Then they’d solemnly inform me that I had eaten west of Rocky Mount and the superior barbecue in North Carolina is east of Rocky Mount — unless I’d been east of Rocky Mount, in which case I was informed that every bit of the North Carolina barbecue you wouldn’t throw rocks at is found west of Rocky Mount. I finally concluded that someone who grew up in Kansas City is unlikely to make it to the right side of Rocky Mount….
“[In 2002] while tucking into the barbecue provided by E. R. Mitchell of Mitchell’s Bar-B-Q in Wilson, North Carolina, I realized that I had finally gotten myself on the right side of Rocky Mount.”
— From “Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties from Kansas City to Cuzco” by Calvin Trillin (2004)
“During a rain delay in a  game against the Phillies, a security guard approached me on the bench. ‘There is someone here to see you,’ he said….
“I took one step toward the locker room, and there was Michael Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jordan.
“Three years earlier, during the one season Jordan played professional baseball, he played for the Birmingham Barons and I played for the Orlando Cubs, both in the Double-A Southern League. As opponents we came to know each other. My mother’s family hailed from [Rocky Mount] North Carolina, so we had plenty to talk about….
“Michael had been in a skybox at Wrigley until the rain delay. Remarkably, he said he had been following my career…. Then he said I should call him to link up.
“When I returned to the dugout, you could hear a pin drop. Glanville knows Jordan? How can that be? He just got to the big leagues.
“A few days later, [Cubs star Sammy Sosa] approached me in the locker room. This time he didn’t ask me to fetch him a cup of water. Instead he asked if I’d like him to bring me to the ballpark in his luxury SUV [and] to hang out with him from time to time.
“Sammy began to ask me all the time for his fellow superstar’s phone number…. I never gave it to him.
“Maybe if he’d brought me some water.”
— From “The Game from Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View” by Doug Glanville (2010)