WILLIAMSTOWN — Last week’s airing by PBS of an excellent biographical documentary on the late Muhammad Ali stirred memories of an afternoon in April 1972 when Ali visited my school.
I was an 18-year-old “post-graduate” student at the Lawrenceville School, a long-established independent boarding school in Lawrenceville, N.J. My membership in the class of 1972 was occasioned by parental and pedagogical hope that my grades in math could be raised to a level deemed acceptable to most colleges. They had a long way to go. As things turned out, I emerged from Lawrenceville with a handsome diploma, an “incomplete” in geometry and a better acquaintance with the cinematic arts and American literature. For these, I am grateful to this day.
An unexpected bonus was having personally seen and heard Ali, who was arguably one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.
Ali’s stage presence engaged his young audience of about 500 more intensely than what he had to say. His sharkskin suit glittering, he seemed to be in constant motion, even as he stood behind a substantial podium. Reading selections from a thick stack of index cards, he exhorted his listeners to treasure hard work and faith. His voice, sometimes almost melodic, was accompaniment to his smooth, flowing movements. He was, first, last and always, a master showman.
Ali’s appearance at the school was arranged by an enterprising Lawrenceville student named Blake Hornick, who engineered a meeting with The Greatest during a visit to Tokyo with his family. The 16-year-old buttonholed Ali in a hotel lobby and managed to get not only his autograph but his phone number in Cherry Hill, N.J., not far from Lawrenceville.
Hornick, who now practices law in New York City, recalled last week that he deliberately called Ali early in the morning soon after his return from Tokyo. He hoped that a jet-lagged Ali might be more amenable to his proposal, which was to pay the boxer $650 to address a small audience a week or so hence.
“I didn’t tell him at first that he would be talking to a mostly all-white crowd of prep school kids,” Hornick said.
The self-described possessor of a powerful ego, Hornick concedes that his efforts to arrange Ali’s appearance were in aid of his campaign for school president, an office he was denied in the election that followed. Nonetheless, he said, he regards his work as an impresario as among the most important and meaningful of his life.
“He was the best-known figure of the 20th century,” Hornick said of Ali, whom Hornick has studied intensively, having attended most of his fights via closed circuit TV or in person.
My recollection of sparring briefly with Ali, who had so engaged at least one other student (invited to the stage by Hornick), was strongly disputed by him.
“You’re delusional,” he said.
I say “maybe.” If Hornick is right, I had a doozy of a dream. Time may tell.
Persistence may yet pay off for the red squirrel that has been trying to establish a winter residence at this address.
Having been temporarily foiled by recent pest control work, the squirrel put in an appearance the other day, clinging to a gutter and glaring at your correspondent through a window. Red squirrels are known to be fearsome animal world outlaws. They even scare off grey squirrels, whose larcenous skills with bird feeders are more than matched by the reds.