My Memories of Muhammad Ali
- The Goods
- Published on Monday, 13 June 2016 12:52
- Ellen Leerburger
SHS Alumni Ellen Leerburger shared the following story about the time she spent with Muhammad Ali. Leerburger, a 1982 grad of SHS, is an Interpretive Exhibit Designer and project manager for museums around the country. She worked as a Senior Interpretive Director at Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership who was hired to design the Muhammad Ali Center building in Louisville, Kentucky as well as all its exhibits. Her mother Julie Leerburger taught English at Scarsdale High School for 29 years and still lives on Heathcote Road with her husband Dick.
I have had the privilege of meeting or working with a good number of famous people or "celebrities" of one kind or another over my years in the museum world, but the time I spent with Muhammad Ali at his house in Berrien Springs, MI and in NYC as project manager creating the Muhammad Ali Center from 1999-2001 was, without question, the biggest highlight and the highest honor of my professional life. One of the best parts of my job has always been becoming an expert in whatever content is required for each job - whether it's the Hubble Space Telescope or Dinosaurs or Boxing and Ali's life from Louisville to the most recognized and respected man in the world. I knew nothing going in other than what anyone growing up in the 70s would know about a sports icon, but it was up to me and my colleagues to soak up every fact and nuance of his life and create the mission and spine of this (then) new museum and center for tolerance and humanitarianism. It was a formidable challenge.
It included many meetings with his wife, Lonnie Ali, and several with Muhammad including the three days my boss and I spent at his home in Michigan hanging out and interviewing him. I have so many memories of those days - his size, his gentleness, the twinkle in his eye, his non- stop magic tricks and jokes. One night, my boss, Lee, Lonnie, Muhammad and I went out for dinner at the local Italian restaurant. We were immediately noticed by all the patrons and, at first, everyone kept a respectful distance as we ate our meals. (Ali LOVED spaghetti and meatballs!) The second, the SECOND, our dessert plates had been cleared, the progression began and both then, and another time I was with him near Times Square, I have never witnessed anything like this. People (of all ages) didn't just come up to him and ask for an autograph or try to shake his hand. They hugged him, called him "Champ." They had tears in their eyes as they told Ali that he had changed their lives - there was none of that boundary that there usually is with "famous"' people. And he personally engaged with every single one. It took us forever to get out of that restaurant and even longer to walk a block in Manhattan. Everyone wanted to touch him, to share his space. It was remarkable.
Through much of the time I knew him I was pregnant with the (now) teen. Without fail, every time I saw him he asked how I was feeling, touched my stomach (without asking, but it was fine!) and asked when I was due. After my daughter Lanie was born, in July 2000, his was the first Tiffany's blue box to arrive with a beautiful spoon and a note that read, "Every child should be born with a silver spoon in her mouth. With love from Lonnie and Muhammad Ali."
Eight months later, I was meeting with him and our exhibit team at the Algonquin Hotel. In those days, my husband and I shared one cell phone (how did that ever work?) and he had it that day, but he was determined to bring Lanie meet Ali (we all know he was just dying to meet him, himself) so he lurked outside the hotel with Lanie in her stroller for I don't know how long. When we finally emerged into the lobby, Ali saw her, immediately grabbed her and held her like Mufasa and the baby Lion King. He was magical with babies. And he adored them.
I kept in touch with Lonnie for many years, emailing in January on Ali's birthday and providing updates of Lanie. It was an incredible professional and personal time. The concept of "Living Your Beliefs" so prevalent in our exhibit, was never more clear after getting to know him and his incredible story of humanity, rising above challenges and intolerance and speaking out for what's right - even at great cost. There's really never been anyone like him nor will there be.
I am devastated by the loss of this great man, but blessed for having known him for a brief time. Truly The Greatest of All Time.