ENON — He was universally considered the greatest boxer of all time, but Muhammad Ali’s impact was not limited to the boxing ring.
In the wake of his death on June 3 at the age of 74, former students and staff at Indian Valley Middle School recalled the morning of May 20, 1988 — when the three-time heavy weight champion of the world made a surprise visit to the school.
Ali, who by then had slowed down as a result of Parkinson’s disease, had flown into Dayton International Airport that Friday morning to sign autographs at a weekend sports card show at Hara Arena. Anthony Mendenhall, who passed away June 10, 2015, was assistant principal at Indian Valley Middle School then and was sponsoring the two-day sports card show. According to Mendenhall’s wife, Rita, who was teaching special education at the school, Mendenhall left the school that morning to pick up Ali at the airport.
Once Ali was in the car, he asked his host what he did for a living.
“Tony told him that he was an assistant principal at a middle school, and Muhammad Ali said, ‘Let’s go. I want to meet the kids.’ When Tony asked him if he was sure, Ali replied, ‘It’s OK. Take me to your school.’ Tony laughed and stated that you don’t argue with a man of few words,” Mendenhall said during an interview on Thursday.
Mendenhall pointed out that her husband thought that perhaps Ali would pay a visit to a couple of classrooms and then leave, but the champ told the assistant principal that he wanted to meet all the students.
“There were no cell phones at the time, so Tony stopped and used a pay phone to call Jeffrey Lewis who was the principal at the middle school. Tony told him to assemble the students in the school gymnasium because Muhammad Ali was coming to the school,” said Mendenhall. “There was mass excitement. It was amazing.”
Mendenhall also noted that Ali took the time to answer questions, joke with the students, and sparred with one student.
“Ali asked if any student would like to spar with him, and all the students pointed to Jason Mckinney who was the tallest student at IV,” Mendenhall said. “I am sure Jason was thrilled.”
Lifelong Enon resident Lisa (Brown) Rose, who was an eighth-grade student at the middle school at that time, said the champ’s visit came as a complete surprise to more than 700 students and teachers who assembled in the gymnasium and noted that everyone cheered and applauded when Ali made his grand appearance.
“It was a day that I will never forget,” Rose said. “He was wearing a khaki shirt and khaki pants and stood tall before the student body with a microphone in his hand.”
She recalled that the champ impressed upon the students to set their goals high, work hard to achieve them, and to not give up if those goals became difficult to accomplish. Rose also stated that Ali dazzled the students and teachers with his famous magic trick.
Erica (Tipton) Collins, who was a fourth grader and the shortest student at the school, recalled when she approached the 6-foot-3-inch champ and asked if she could shake his hand.
“I didn’t know who Muhammad Ali was at first, but some of the students told me that he was one of the greatest boxing champions of all time. I walked over to him and asked him if I could shake his hand. Before I knew what was happening, he picked me up and gave me a big hug,” Collins said. “I went home that afternoon and told my parents that Muhammad Ali visited my school and gave me a hug.”
Both Rose and Collins still possess a copy of a note Ali wrote to all the students on school stationery. He added a Post Script at the end of the letter which read, “Love is the net where hearts are caught like fish.” Mendenhall said Tony kept the original copy, but a copy of Ali’s note remains in a display case at the middle school.
Retired middle school health and PE teacher Linda Garber said Ali was so friendly and personal with the students and teachers during his visit.
“He was great with the students. He wanted to come and see the kids, and he took so much time with them and the staff,” Garber said. “We were so impressed with Ali‘s ability to levitate. The school was definitely in a buzz.”
Garber noted that the following day at the sports card show, the champ invited her to sit on his lap when she requested a photo with him.
Retired eighth grade teacher Barbara Arnold described Ali as a great motivational speaker.
“He told the students not to expect things in life to just be handed to them. If they stuck with whatever they were doing and worked hard, they would surely make something of their lives,” Arnold said.
Arnold added that Ali lived up to his famous quote “Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee,” when he levitated before the students and teachers.
Mendenhall also shared some of her cherished memories when the couple and their 3-year-old daughter, Lindsay, spent time with Ali during the weekend of the sports card show.
“We stayed at the same motel as Muhammad Ali stayed, and he visited our room often. He was bigger than life but was kind, humble and personal,” Mendenhall said. “He was very philosophical, and his visits gave us an insight into his amazing life.”
Mendenhall also stated that Ali emphasized the fact that human beings only use a small portion of their brains, and if they tapped into more of their intellects, people could accomplish so much more.
“Tony remained truly in awe of the legendary boxer, and I know that he must have been elated waiting for Muhammad Ali’s arrival in heaven,” said Mendenhall. “It was undoubtedly a grand reunion.”