Kentucky voices: The day 'The Greatest' came calling

July 27, 2012 

The Summer Olympics in London likely will produce a record number of gold medalists from the United States. As talented as these athletes are, few, if any, will attain the height of notoriety achieved by native Kentuckian Muhammad Ali, who as Cassius Clay captured the boxing title in 1960.

Today, a half-century after winning his championship in Rome, and 31 years after retiring from the ring, Ali remains a figure of controversy, largely because of his refusal on religious grounds to be inducted into the military four decades ago.

Two recent announcements concerning Ali have inspired condemnatory letters and talk-show commentary. Ali was feted by Sports for Peace at a star-studded dinner in London Wednesday night to celebrate his humanitarian work and contributions as a "role model on civil rights, humanity and in opposing war." Also, he is to receive the 2012 Liberty Medal in September.

While some people will continue to question the depth of Ali's sincerity as a Muslim, I would like to offer a view of the man I observed when the cameras were not rolling and the microphones were turned off.

In 1990, while I was serving as managing editor at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, we published a brief item appealing for donations of African-American artifacts to the society's permanent collection.

One morning, a member of our museum staff was astonished to receive a phone call from Ali himself, who said he had seen the notice and wondered whether we would be interested in several of his personal possessions.

Assured that we most certainly would welcome his donation, Ali responded, "I will bring them to Frankfort the next time I am home in Louisville."

"I won't be able to give you much notice," he continued, "because I feel better some days than others."

Several weeks later, Ali called to say he would be driving over that morning. Those of us on the staff agreed to respect his privacy and refrain from telephoning our friends.

Inevitably, perhaps, the word got out, and by the time Ali arrived a small crowd had gathered. Already displaying some of the effects of Parkinson's syndrome, Ali said little as he made his way through the crowd, though he did throw good-natured "punches" at several bystanders.

Ali brought with him a silk boxing robe, gloves and an oversize bust of himself that he had been given in West Germany. He and his brother, Rahaman Ali, himself a former heavyweight, posed for photographs with several of our staff. When one of us casually asked, "May we take you to lunch?" he instantly agreed.

Seated in the restaurant of a nearby hotel, Ali clutched a two-liter bottle labeled Coke that contained water and cubes of ice. "My pills make my mouth dry," he explained.

Unlike the rest of us who ordered from the menu, the former champ made his way alone to the salad bar.

During the course of the next 90 minutes Ali watched our party of seven intently but rarely spoke. "I prefer to listen," he remarked. From time to time he would suddenly inject a note of levity. "What did Abraham Lincoln say the morning after he went on a killer drunk?" he asked. "I freed the who?" he said with a laugh.

As fellow diners noticed Ali's presence, a few ventured up to shake his hand or offer a greeting. "Champ, I saw you fight once in Chicago," one man exclaimed. Ali immediately shot back, "I remember you. You were wearing a brown suit."

When a woman asked for an autograph, he pulled out a pamphlet on Islam and began signing his name. "I want you to promise me that you will read this," he said.

After the autograph seeker left the table he commented, "I have had all the fame in the world. I have had all the riches in the world. And I tell you, if you don't have a relationship with your Maker, you have nothing."

Thomas H. Appleton Jr. is professor of American history at Eastern Kentucky University.

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