Suburban residents recall meeting Muhammad Ali

  • Former Arlington Heights resident Phil Ginnodo had a chance to meet Muhammad Ali several times after Ali's daughter, Rasheda, moved into a house across the street from his current home in Palos Heights.

    Former Arlington Heights resident Phil Ginnodo had a chance to meet Muhammad Ali several times after Ali's daughter, Rasheda, moved into a house across the street from his current home in Palos Heights. Courtesy of Phil Ginnodo

  • Cary resident Bob Carroll met Muhammad Ali in the mid-1980s at the Park West theater in Chicago during a closed-circuit broadcast of the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard fight. Carroll came away with an Ali autograph and had it framed.

    Cary resident Bob Carroll met Muhammad Ali in the mid-1980s at the Park West theater in Chicago during a closed-circuit broadcast of the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard fight. Carroll came away with an Ali autograph and had it framed. courtesy of Bob Carroll

 
 
Updated 6/9/2016 4:47 PM

People who met or saw Muhammad Ali say he had a powerful, positive aura about him, making it an unforgettable experience.

Ali, a three-time world champion boxer and iconic sports figure, died June 3 at age 74. Thousands gathered Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky, for his funeral. He will be laid to rest Friday.

 

In the days after his death, suburban residents shared memories of their encounters with the champ.

'He threw this punch in my face'

In 1987, a family member who worked as a security guard sneaked Cary resident Bob Carroll into the backstage area at Chicago's Park West theater, where VIPs had come to watch a closed-circuit broadcast of the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard fight. Standing backstage, Carroll, a former Palatine High School teacher, saw Muhammad Ali walk by and nervously asked for an autograph.

"He stopped, rolled his hands, and threw a punch within an inch of my nose. Then he winked," said Carroll, adding that Ali then happily signed an autograph, even though his hands shook from Parkinson's. "He was overly gracious. But when his hands were moving, and he threw this punch in my face, it was right there in a hurry. It was one of the most exciting things that's ever happened to me."

'The room was taken over by this man'

Arlington Heights resident Bob Ibach met Ali at three different stages in the champ's life: when he was a young boxer and activist named Cassius Clay, when he was a world champion, and late in his life when he was slowed by Parkinson's.

"The thing that always stayed with me was his presence," Ibach said. "The room was taken over by this man, even at the end of his life. It was like a glow around his head. When he was in the house, you knew something special was going on."

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Ibach, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, interviewed him and found him to be an articulate, passionate speaker who wanted to reach out to regular people and talk about social issues as well as boxing.

"He had the gift of gab," Ibach said.

Ibach would be reminded of this decades later, when he interviewed Ali on his CBS radio show.

"I handed him a mic, and I learned a lesson: Don't ever hand the microphone to Muhammad Ali, because you might never get it back. We were going to commercial break ... and he wouldn't stop talking. I had to ask (his trainer) to get the microphone back from The Champ."

In the early 2000s, Ibach met Ali again at a National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, where people had paid anywhere from $100 to $500 to have Ali sign things. While there, Ibach brought "Baywatch" actresses -- who were also at the convention -- over to meet Ali.

"He wasn't able to talk much then, but he winked at me and smiled and said, 'Very nice. Very nice,'" Ibach said. "At each stage (in his career), he never lost that specialness. He was, in some ways, a champion even more after he had Parkinson's, because he wouldn't let it stop him."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

George LeClaire IV and his family saw the 1976 Muhammad Ali vs. Richard Dunn fight in Munich, Germany. Ali purchased tickets and gave them away to military families.
George LeClaire IV and his family saw the 1976 Muhammad Ali vs. Richard Dunn fight in Munich, Germany. Ali purchased tickets and gave them away to military families. - courtesy of George LeClaire
'He was larger than sports'

In 1976, former Daily Herald photographer George LeClaire was a junior at Munich American High School in Germany when Ali came to speak to the students. He spoke for more than an hour, and then he walked over to some of the students, including LeClaire, and compared hand sizes. LeClaire got to put his hand on Ali's.

"His hand was three to four times larger than my hand. His hands were enormous," recalls LeClaire, of Glenview.

Ali's display of kindness was enormous, too. Stars and Stripes magazine reported that Ali bought $100,000 worth of pricey tickets to his 1976 fight in Munich against European champ Richard Dunn and gave them to military families throughout the area. LeClaire's family was among them, and his grandfather flew in from Florida on a day's notice just to go.

LeClaire still remembers the ridiculously one-sided match, where Ali played to the audience and floored Dunn several times with a single punch. The fight made LeClaire a lifelong Ali fan.

"He brought a lot of people in to watch fighting who normally wouldn't, because of his personality. He made the sport larger," he said. "He was larger than even sports."

'His presence electrified everyone'

Schaumburg resident Jim Rafferty was running a 5K race in Lincoln Park in the mid-1990s when, at the start of the race, the announcer shouted in surprise, "Look who's here! It's The Champ!'" Ali had been walking through the park with a friend and stopped to see what was going on. The announcer tried to give Ali the megaphone so he could start the race, but he smiled and declined. He just wanted to observe. Ali waved to the runners as they started the race.

"It seemed like just his presence electrified everyone. It electrified me," said Rafferty, who had been a fan since he watched Ali win the Olympic gold medal in boxing in 1960.

Ali being there made him run faster.

"I gave it my best effort in his honor," Rafferty said. "It struck me that here was the champion, and he was just walking through the park, and he was interested in us. You couldn't help but feel his presence."

Muhammad Ali spoke at Munich American High School before his fight with Richard Dunn in Germany in 1976. George LeClaire IV is in the back far left.
Muhammad Ali spoke at Munich American High School before his fight with Richard Dunn in Germany in 1976. George LeClaire IV is in the back far left. - courtesy of George LeClaire
'It was surreal'

Phil Ginnodo had a chance to see the family-focused side of Ali. Nearly two decades ago, Ali's daughter, Rasheda, moved into a house across the street from Ginnodo's home in Palos Heights. Rasheda opened a restaurant, Biaggio's, with her husband, Bob Walsh, and invited the Ginnodos to the grand opening.

"We get to jump the line because we're neighbors, and we met him and my wife cried," Ginnodo said.

But that was only the beginning. The Walshs opened two more restaurants and each time the Ginnodos were invited to the opening, Ali was present again.

In addition, they attended a handful of birthday parties for the two Walsh boys.

"You walk in the kitchen and there's Muhammad Ali," Ginnodo said.

Often, Ali would be doing magic tricks for the kids. Ginnodo recalled the smiles on their faces and how gracious Ali was with his time.

"It was surreal but so neat to be able to be a part of that," Ginnodo said, adding that he always considered Ali a hero growing up. "He was just a grandpa and a dad and it was really neat to see."

'He just lit up the room'

For Lawrence Lentz, 46, of Round Lake, being in the presence of Ali's "greatness" was a feeling that could not be measured or adequately explained.

"Just being in the same room with him is an incredible experience," said Lentz, owner of the Lake County Athletic and Boxing Club in Libertyville.

In 2001, Lentz was head boxing coach at Arizona State University when he attended a celebrity fight night fundraiser in Phoenix supporting Parkinson's disease research. Ali was a guest of honor.

Lentz got to shake hands with his childhood idol whose pictures adorn the walls of his gym. Though Lentz can't remember if any words were spoken, the elation of that moment has never left him.

"Even with his Parkinson's and him being sick, he just lit up the room," Lentz said. "He was a once-in-a-lifetime human being. At first, I had issue with him for the whole draft thing, but I also was proud of him for standing up for what he believed. Not too many people supported that (Vietnam) war, and a lot of people would be behind him for doing that."

• Daily Herald staff writers Jessica Cilella and Madhu Krishnamurthy contributed to this report.

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