Muhammad Ali and My Dad

It was 1975 or ‘76. My Dad was driving a black Chevrolet Caprice convertible. The car was huge, with a big bench seat upfront where I could sit right next to him.

We were on Hillside Avenue in Baltimore, a winding country road. We drove along, gently swaying into the twists and turns. Dad pulled up to a driveway with a black mailbox. I could see a house through the trees that looked a bit like a rehabbed small rail station on a train line that had been pulled out decades prior. Dad pulled a plain envelope out of his jacket and placed it in the mailbox. “What’s that?” I asked? Dad told me that the home belonged to Maris Ross, and elderly retiree who had fallen on tough times. Turns out that Maris had dedicated her life in the late 60's and early 70's to persuading Baltimore’s elite private schools to provide scholarships to young African American boys. Apparently she had really moved the needle, getting many more schools to participate and many, many more scholarships. “Maris Ross has done more to help these kids in Baltimore than anyone I know”, Dad said, “She can’t make ends meet so I drop off something to help every month…I feel it’s the right thing to do”. I remember thinking how amazing it was that Dad had taken on that responsibility. Ms. Ross had selflessly taken care of so many, and now Dad was helping to take care of her. It seemed so cool, like good karma.

Some months later, I learned that Maris was possibly going to lose her house. Apparently things had gotten worse and it was beyond Dad’s limited resources to fix it. I remember my Dads furrowed brow as he was thinking of what to do.

“I’m going to organize a fundraiser for Maris. I’m going to call Muhammad Ali and see if he will come to Baltimore. We’ll have a fundraising event at the Center Stage theater and raise some money for her”, Dad said. I was stunned…my Dad had Muhammad Ali’s phone number? Wow!

That wasn’t quite the case. Dad was going to have to research how to reach out to the Champ or his “people”. This was years before the PC, the Internet or Google. How would he do it? I was amazed. Dad was fearless; he was just going to just “give Ali a call”? To this day I don’t know how he figured it out. It must have been very tough back then. Remember, this was 1975 or 1976…’75 was the year of the Thrilla in Manila…Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier. The year prior in ‘74 was the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, where Ali knocked out the undefeated George Foreman…the Champ was at the top of his game, with huge fame and fortune. Getting him to come to Baltimore for a complete stranger…this was a big ask.

It had to be “six degrees of separation”. I don’t know how else Dad got it done. He must have known a guy…who knew a guy…who knew someone…who knew Muhammad Ali’s people.

A couple weeks later my brother Doug and I got home from school and Dad was in the kitchen. “Boys, come here, you have to hear this!”, he said. We went to the answering machine…the clunky kind from that era with a cassette tape in it. The message light was flashing. Dad pressed play. “Mister Becker, this is Muhammad Ali calling”…my brother and I looked at each other with our eyes wide open, as we heard that distinctive, smokey, smooth, undeniably unique voice of the Champ coming out of the speaker of our answering machine! … “my people tell me you are having an event for Maris Ross, and that she is a very special lady who has done some wonderful things. Well Mr. Becker, I’m coming to Baltimore…” My Dad had this huge smile from ear to ear, that must have been a combination of excitement and relief. We just couldn’t believe it.

A couple months later, Ali came to Baltimore. My Dad opened the event at Center Stage and introduced the Champ. Later he told me that as he made the introduction, he could see his parents, my Grandmother and Grandfather, sitting in the front row. My grandmother had tears rolling down her face as she looked at my Dad with pride.

Muhammad Ali came out on the stage…I’ve seen a black and white 8x10 picture of this…he stood tall and strong in his beautiful tan suit…and thanked Dad. He then spoke a bit about Maris Ross and why he had come to town. He thanked everyone for supporting the event. And then, the Champ…the boxer…the fighter…for the next forty-five minutes…performed…his poetry. And the audience loved it.

The event was a success. Funds were raised to help Maris Ross. Dad had pulled it off. Just amazing.

When I heard that Muhammad Ali had passed away, these memories came rushing back. I called Dad in Baltimore…he is 82 and being treated for lymphoma right now…and we remembered together this big event from more than forty years ago. I thought about how much I appreciate my Dad’s resourcefulness and creativity, fearlessly calling a worldwide celebrity to help do something positive in our community. I thought about what a great man Muhammad Ali was, coming from Louisville to Baltimore, to recite poetry and help out. What a generous, cool guy.

I learned so much from this experience. How a social worker in Baltimore had helped so many kids from the tough neighborhoods with her creativity and persistence. How when she needed help herself, my Dad and the Baltimore community stepped up. I learned not to be afraid to pursue a great idea, as Dad had taken the risk of cold calling Muhammad Ali. This was all about giving back and paying it forward…about being bold and how the power of entrepreneurial citizen leadership can make good things happen.