O Brothers, Who Art Thou?
from the Spring 2007 issue
Jim Thorpe the athlete had never set foot in Jim Thorpe, the town, before he was buried there in 1953. Thorpe made his name in the 1912 Olympics, where he won gold medals in the pentathalon and decathalon and was called “the greatest athlete in the world” by the king of Sweden. Such high regard did not last his lifetime. Although Thorpe went on to play college football and professional baseball, his medals were revoked due to violations of amateur regulations and his reputation suffered. When he died, his widow offered her husband’s name and remains to any town that would give him what she considered a fitting a memorial.
The northeast Pennsylvania boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and accepted the offer. The newly minted town adopted the athletes name and erected a 20-ton granite monument to mark the now-final resting place of his body. Perhaps because of this monument (with accompanying corpse), perhaps because of a populace savvy enough to open local-artist galleries and curio shops around the monument, Jim Thorpe has become a place people set aside Saturdays to visit, while its neighboring settlements, a string of old, aching coal towns, are the places these travellers are visiting from.
In 1982, the International Olympic Committee reviewed Jim Thorpe’s case and restored the athlete’s amateur status and his medals. In 2000, ABC’s Wide World of Sports dubbed him “Athlete of the Century,” and Jim Thorpe the town threw a parade, featuring clowns, bands, and an exhibition by the Northeast Pennsylvania Ripcord Skydivers, to mark the honor. Fifteen thousand dollars worth of the operating expenses for this celebration were donated by two local men, Ralph and Daniel Cipko, who have also given the town $64,000 to install a computer center at a Catholic high school, $40,000 to repair the courthouse clock, and $12,000 to improve the town’s animal shelter.
Jim Thorpe isn’t the only northeast Pennsylvania town that has benefitted from the Cipko brothers’ largesse. There’s Palmerton, for instance, to which the brothers donated $17,000 for a town hall clock, $19,000 for church bells, and $13,000 for two marble murals dedicated to the Cipko family. And Lansford, which was awarded $10,000 for Christmas decorations, $16,000 for a park gazebo, and over $20,000 for a mining museum. And a Walnutport Boy Scout troup, which was given nearly $15,000 to purchase twenty acres of camp land. And the Catholic dioceses of Allentown, Scranton, and Philadelphia, which are said to have received donations totaling nearly $6 million.
In March 2001, referencing a generations-old argument about whether the body of Jim Thorpe the athlete should be re-interred in a more appropriate location, a Jim Thorpe resident said in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, “I think there are a lot of residents that would have no objection to returning the body…And then renaming the town Cipkoville.”
The towns of Jim Thorpe, Lansford, and Palmerton are located in Northeastern Pennsylvania, around the point where Route 80 and Interstate 81 cross, somewhat west of the Pocono Mountains in country hilly enough for the state to have built runaway truck ramps into the beltways. These are coal-patch towns, three-avenue communities in which the public buildings are a string of pizza shops, churches, and bars. I am from a neighboring town, Hazleton—meant to be named for the hazel tree, but misspelled on the town charter and thus for posterity. My grandmother, who grew up in the even smaller town of Freeland, tells me that once Hazleton was a destination location with a roller coaster. By the time I was a teenager, the town was a young person’s dead end, and the biggest attraction was the shopping mall.
Although I grew up reading a newspaper, the Hazleton Standard-Speaker, busy with articles about the Cipko brothers, I didn’t notice the duo until my father started clipping the photographs—the two brothers book-ending a mayor or pastor at a clock or gazebo dedication; the brothers sitting in guest-of-honor positions behind paper-clothed folding tables at the annual banquets held in gratitude for their deeds.
In these photographs, Ralph and Daniel are clearly old men, clearly odd men, slouched in boxy black suits, pallid beneath black swaths of obvious toupees. Daniel wears oversized tinted glasses and a teased-out toupee; his hands are usually folded at his waist. Ralph, sporting a paintbrush moustache, thrusts his chin forward and raises his eyes to heaven.
The brothers seem to be of an historic school of thought when it comes to being photographed—cameras are not to be smiled at, but stared into, stared down. Occasionally, the brothers have been photographed in motion or in conversation. On these occasions, one can see that Daniel’s hands do wander in gestures, that Ralph’s chin does drop to a level that allows him to look another in the eyes.
While the Cipkos’ philanthropy has been extensively, and almost always photographically, documented, their personal history has been sparsely reported. Although they are public figures, they are private people, and in the small towns they live in and improve, personal discretion is respected even by those who make a living of seeking and reporting the news.
When Daniel Cipko died (of “undisclosed causes”) in late November, the obituaries that followed illuminated the details of the brothers’ background, for perhaps the first time in recent memory. Ralph and Daniel Cipko were two of nine children who were born to first-generation Slovakian parents. They spent their early years in New York City. Their mother died young. Their father moved the family to Lansford, Pennsylvania, where he took a job in a coal mine. Their father, still young, soon died of black lung disease. Even so, the teenaged Ralph and Daniel took jobs in the mines themselves.
Later, they worked in the Bethlehem steel plants. Later still, they moved to Detroit to work for General Motors. At some point, they served in the armed services. At other points, they lived in Connecticut and in Ohio. Eventually they returned to the Carbon County coal towns of their childhood.
Their father’s dying wish was that the two brother stay together: And so they never married. They shared a house. And somehow, on some tip from some unnamed friend, these blue-collar brothers rallied the funds to invest in South American mining interests and ended up controlling a fortune reported to total three hundred million dollars.
During Easter weekend last April, one of my younger brothers drove me along a two lane mountain pass highway to Palmerton, where the Cipko brothers kept one of several homes. Three days earlier, a late-season storm had dropped six inches of snow in a few afternoon hours. Now the snow was melting. The roadside was salty, gravelly, gray. We drove through one-and-two-dozen-building towns, the sole splashes of color wooden yard decorations depicting the bloomered backsides of women bending to flower beds or porch-railing Easter bunnies carrying baskets of eggs.
We crossed the Lehigh River just outside of Jim Thorpe, then turned into town, past the train station turned local museum, past the peaked eaves and strollable sidewalks speaking that desperate small-town promise: “This is a nice place to live.”
After Jim Thorpe, there are no towns for a stretch, nothing to look at but bare branches and gray sky. We knew we were nearing Palmerton, a Superfund site since 1983, when the mountains became bare stone. For nearly seventy years, Palmerton was home to the New Jersey Zinc Company, which over the course of its operation deposited a cinder bank two-and-a-half miles long at the edge of town and leached enough heavy metal pollution to defoliate nearly 2,000 acres of mountain trees. Without leaves, the trees died. Without the trees’ net of underground roots, the soil washed from the mountains, leaving these slabs of rocks jutting into the sky.
My brother and I parked on Palmerton’s main street and walked past half-price Easter candy outside one five-and-dime, plastic-potted violets in a little red wagon outside another. We passed a Jujitsu martial arts center promising the secrets of the “Rat Pack Fighting System,” and churches on nearly every corner, and doctors’ offices, so many doctors’ offices—dialysists, podiatrists, oncologists, one specializing in wound care.
Parallel with the main road, but fenced off from curious children, abandoned railroad tracks traced a curve. Beside another fence, a teenager squeezed a padlocked gate to help his friend slip from the elementary school playground where they had been throwing a basketball through netless hoops. In the town’s central park, a steel plaque read “Donated by the Cipko brothers for the enjoyment of all.” On the railing of an otherwise pure white gazebo in this park, someone had written, with black marker, in a star-dotted script, “Don’t believe what they say.”
The Cipko Brothers Fan Club was founded in 1999 by Marjorie Reppert and Rebecca Venable, with the intent, according to the mission statement, of keeping “all fan club members informed of what the Cipko brothers have done for Carbon County, where they have been sighted, and what they might expect next.” In 2001, the founders retired and Peter Bashago moved into the leadership role. At this point, membership, which required paying a ten-dollar membership fee, numbered 150 Cipko fans. Members receive quarterly newsletters, a wallet-sized membership card, a wearable Cipko brothers button, and an invitation to the annual banquet at which the brothers are honored guests.
The newsletters are double-sided, upper-right-hand stapled photocopies, which regularly contain reproductions of newspaper articles touting the brothers’ donations; a list of local restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores where the brothers have been spotted; and a column of cited membership reasons (“They’re a little nutty…no, a lot nutty, but they’re good guys…”).
There is sometimes a page of word games and sometimes a set of photographs of members wearing their buttons on vacation or during special occasions. In one photograph, a father of the bride wears his pin while walking his daughter down the aisle. The Christmas 2000 issue featured a recipe for Cipko gingerbread (no different from regular gingerbread) and sketches of two gingerbread men with of Ralph and Daniel’s faces, meant to be “cut out, colored and made into ornaments to hang on your tree.”
The newsletters serve as the record of a letters-to-the-editor spat enacted on the pages of the Lehighton Times News in 2000, prompted by a Lehighton man’s one-sentence note: “This is being written to remind certain well-known philanthropists of the fact that the most sincere form of charity is that which is given anonymously and known only to God.”
The brothers met insult with insult, and added a threat. “What you have done is to point out to everyone what kind of person you really are—disrespectable, unworthy of respect, envious, and prejudiced to two brothers who help all mankind….Let this be the final letter, if not you will receive a letter from our attorneys.”
The original letter writer did not follow up, but a neighbor did, accusing the brothers of reneging on promised gifts when “suitable accolades were not forthcoming” and warning that “Jesus cautioned against giving as the Pharisees did, with bells and much hoopla going before you.” The brothers had the last word: “A good Catholic would have never written this letter to two devoted Catholics, it’s your reputation that is gutter level and now is known to everyone. Sinners go to hell.”
In the summer of 2003, Bob Urban, a writer for the Times News, revived the accusations of these amateur editorialists in an opinion piece that called the Cipko brothers “egocentric manipulators, who use snippets of their alleged vast fortune to keep their names and pictures in the public eye.” Urban’s piece notes that a letter signed by Ralph and Daniel had been read at a recent Lansford Borough Council meeting, in which the brothers informed the council that all future donations were in danger of being cancelled. “How can we continue when we are not recognized?” Urban quotes the Cipkos as having said.
The impetus for the brothers’ umbrage was the Times News’ coverage of their donation of a $21,000 police dog to the community of Lansford. Although a photograph of the brothers with the dog was printed in the newspaper, it did not appear on the front page, as the Cipkos had hoped. “If we didn’t show, there was no dough,” Urban said in his editorial. “Of course, being a local paper that serves small, mostly financially strapped communities and school districts, we complied.”
When I spoke with Peter Bashago on the telephone last spring, I hoped to tactfully broach the issues of humility and publicity raised by Urban and others, but Bashago scuttled the conversation by saying that he wasn’t really running the fan club right now because of “that business with the dog.”
In October of 2004, a federal grand jury indicted Jeremy Sommers, Lansford’s K-9 officer, for planting narcotics during searches utilizing the drug-sniffing dog the brothers had donated. The Lansford city council, which had never been sure the town needed a drug-sniffing dog in the first place, placed an ad in the classified section of the Times News announcing the dog’s sale. Ralph and Daniel read this ad and were outraged; understandably so, Bashago thought. The city council should have called “the boys” about the dog, he said; they shouldn’t have had to discover the news by reading a classified ad.
Mark Marek, in a spoken editorial aired on the Lansford-based AM radio station WLSH, agreed that the city council acted improperly. “Put yourself in the Cipkos’ shoes. You make a $21,000 drug-sniffing dog donation with the best of intentions. Now Lansford officials want to dump your gift like an unwanted Christmas present. Would you consider making another gift to the town?”
Peter Bashago told me that maybe if I wrote the brothers a nice letter they would consider an interview. I wrote what I thought was a very nice letter and sent it to Bashago, who had promised to forward it to Ralph and Daniel, who were now living in an undisclosed location. While I waited for a response, Jeremy Sommers was sentenced to twenty-three months in prison and a $4,000 fine and my hometown of Hazleton put in a bid to buy the dog. After awhile, I called Bashago again. He assured me that he had forwarded my letter, but cautioned me that “the boys have their own ways of doing things.” He told me the following cautionary tale:
A few years ago, Ralph and Daniel donated a considerable sum of money to fund the reopening of the Lansford public library. A Lansford city council member teasingly recommended that the library take the brothers’ name. A town-oriented name was settled on. The brothers, pleased at the possibility of having a library named after them, were not happy with this decision. There were angry phone calls, the threat of a lawyer. And then a period of public quiet. And then the usual gazebo and mine museum photos began appearing again.
When Daniel Cipko died in late November, he was 76 years old. According to Peter Bashago’s estimates, Ralph is in his mid-eighties. Ralph will not live much longer, and after they are both gone, their existence, instead of something to wonder about, will become something to remember. Already the march toward hagiography has begun: In Daniel Cipko’s obituaries, he was lauded as an unequivocally kindly man; a humble and generous soul; a patron saint for a region that needed one desperately.
But the legacy that the Cipko brothers will leave is far more dense than these Sunday school parables of unreconstructed benevolence and blame-free living. Instead, the Cipkos might best be compared to the bare mountains that loom outside Palmerton: majestic yet grim, imposing yet familiar, of their environment yet apart from it; a region-defining presence, encompassing shadows, light, and all the gray areas in between.
But legacies, like coal, don’t often allow for shades of gray. “Don’t believe what they say,” the teenager warns in black-marker graffiti. But graffiti is inevitably scrubbed off. Plaques and monuments remain.
All content © 2007, Polite and its contributors.