A Washington Post retrospective about Muhammad Ali prompted me to share my own experiences with the Champ outside of Charlottesville in the early 1980s. Since I know newspaper firewalls often block access to stories, I’ll take the liberty of copying my letter which led the Post’s May 18 letters page:
The May 8 "Retropolis" (“A day after winning a title fight in Maryland, Ali went to prom”) sparked fond memories of another visit Muhammad Ali made to a school in the region. It happened in June 1982, not far from where the Champ had recently purchased a horse farm west of Charlottesville.
As a local reporter, I was fortunate to have a front row seat at a fundraiser for a childcare center. The event near Skyline Drive, I wrote, “resembled a revival, a political convention and a prize fight.”
Ali – resplendent in a blue suit and striped tie -- kissed babies and not a few of their thrilled mothers. He joked around with throngs of boys in baseball caps. He shadowboxed with all comers.
Mostly, the king of the ring held court. Accepting a key to Nelson County, Va., he quipped, “I’ve never seen a city so small and a key so big.”
When the ceremony was over, the charismatic athlete asked if anyone wanted to see his magic show. “Yes!” the crowd cried out.
With that, his handlers fetched a magic kit he kept in his Jeep. Ali made his way into the school auditorium, followed by the thrilled throng. He didn’t disappointment, either. Turning a yellow scarf into a cane, the Greatest demonstrated the lightning-quick hands that felled so many opponents.
Muhammad Ali’s magic act transcended mere trickery, though. He brought everyone together and showed that – his brutal sport notwithstanding -- his greatest gift was delivering a message of peace.
Chip Jones is an award-winning author, journalist and former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine. The Organ Thieves is his fourth book.