Saturday, June 4, 2016

Special OTR: Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius Clay)

What a sad headline to see when I woke up this morning.  

Muhammad Ali, Titan of Boxing and the 20th Century, Dies at 74

As I’ve written here before, my uncle, Barney Felix was the referee of the first Liston / Clay (Ali) fight in 1965.  When Ali became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted into the Army, his heavyweight championship was stripped from him.  To make some money, he started speaking at college campuses.  He came to Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, NJ when I was the sports editor so, in addition to attending his speech, to a packed gym, I got to attend a small press conference immediately following that.  At one point, having my hand up, Ali recognized me.  I asked him, “Champ, do you think Joe Frazier could ever beat you?” “Son,” Ali said with that wonderful smile, “if Frazier even dreamed of beating me, he would wake up apologizing.” 

Ali was a poet of sorts and a unique personality in the annals of professional boxing.  Here are some quotes the New York Times published today:

“Henry, this is no jive. The fight will end in five.”
A young Cassius Clay, in a 1963 interview, claiming to have predicted the round in which he would beat the British boxer Henry Cooper.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Clay taunted the boxer Sonny Liston in the days before their world heavyweight title bout in February 1964.

“Shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me.”
Ali refused to be drafted into the armed forces during the Vietnam War. He was denied a boxing license and did not fight for three years.

“My name is Muhammad Ali, and you will announce it right there in center of that ring.”
Ali addressing Ernie Terrell, who kept calling him Cassius Clay, before Ali slapped him in the face during a television interview.

“I have wrestled with a alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, throwed thunder in jail.”
Before the heavyweight championship fight in 1974 against George Foreman known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
“I told you all, I was the greatest of all time.”
Ali speaking after defeating George Foreman in the “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

I’m sure many others share the belief that he was ‘The greatest of all time.”

A sad good bye to one of the truly legendary figures of my generation, of boxing and of the world.  

Thinking about meeting 'The Champ' when I was sports editor of The Bulletin at Fairleigh Dickinson University led me to write the following: 

Peggy Noonan

I’d bet that many of you know who Peggy Noonan is.  For those who don’t she’s a highly regarded journalist.  But as I re-read that that description unintentionally minimizes her history: 

I went to college at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU).  Three campuses were in New Jersey – Rutherford, Teaneck and Madison.  As fate would have it, I had planned to start at FDU for the spring semester at the Madison campus – which was closer to where my parent’s house was in Livingston, NJ.  I had not thought, at least then, of living anywhere else and commuting to school.  But Madison was not accepting ‘mid-year’ freshmen and so I went to the Rutherford Campus.  
Okay, back to Peggy.  When I took over as editor in chief of The Bulletin, our office was located in the basement of a house that served as offices for something or other.  Prior to me, the paper was pretty cliquey and I believe very few students even knew where the newspaper office was.  Thinking differently I ‘opened up’ the paper to everyone who was interested.  Physically, I opened it up by keeping the cellar doors to the basement, which opened onto one of the parking lots open.  I also posted a sign, “The Bulletin.”  Philosophically, everyone was invited to participate.  I remember walking through the cafeteria one day and saw a girl drawing a cartoon. ‘Would you be interested in being the cartoonist for the school newspaper?’  She agreed and became the first ever full-time cartoonist for The Bulletin.

My Dad had donated a refrigerator and a couch to the office and many of us hung out there a lot. 

Our advisor was a fellow named Marty Gansberg, who was a well-known reporter for the New York Times.  He used to come out to Rutherford from New York every Thursday and spent most of the day working with the editors on getting the next edition ready for press.  He also taught us the ‘way of the Times’ which has, sadly over the years, disappeared – some basic things like a news article is news and not editorial.  He was a colorful character who made a difference and, we had a lot of fun with him.

One evening, I’m down at the Bulletin office and an attractive young woman walks in.  “Hi, I’m Peggy Noonan.  I just transferred from night school to full-time days and I’d like to be part of the school newspaper.”  “Great to meet you, welcome”, I said. That was the start of a friendship that lasted into the 1980’s.  The last communication I got from her was a note on White House stationery – “Hey Felix, when are you coming to Washington to visit.”

Peggy had a vision for her career, at least for the start of it, and she made it happen. 

From Wikipedia:
Margaret Ellen "Peggy" Noonan (born September 7, 1950) is an American author of several books on politics, religion, and culture, and a weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She was a primary speechwriter and Special Assistant to President Ronald Regan and has maintained a conservative leaning in her writings since leaving the Reagan Administration.

There is a lot more to her background but I’ll leave that interesting reading for you to research on your own.

Why did I decide to write to you about Peggy today?
I am not conservative in my thinking.  When we were in college, I don’t believe Peggy was either – actually none of us who worked on The Bulletin were – except for this one guy, whose name I can’t remember – who we believed was a plant by some government agency watching potentially ‘subversive’ college newspaper activity.  He was an untalented jerk that no one liked one bit.

I bought Peggy’s first book, “What I Saw At The Revolution,” which was published in 1990.  Even though we had been out of contact for about 6 years at that time, I wanted to go see her, catch up on things and, in writing a hand written note to her, suggested I’d like her to autograph my book (somewhat tongue in cheek as I’ve never really been an autograph collector).  I never heard back from her. She had moved on. 

But as I’m working on finishing my book, “Driving With Your Knees”, I’ve been reading a lot as well.  The other day I bought a book on memoir writing which has changed my view on a couple of things I was considering including in the book but have decided they can wait for another day and another venue.  Then, somehow I saw that Peggy had published a book in 2015 called, “The Time of Our Lives.”

The book is a compendium of pieces she’s written over the years.  From the inside jacket flap of the hardcover version (I love hardcover books). “The book travels the path of her remarkable career showing how she became one of the most influential voices in America.” I thought it might provide some lessons that I could use in writing my book.  (Btw, the editor I’ve hired to work with was the editor of The Bulletin the year before me!) 

I’m about 85% through Peggy’s book and, yes, it has given me some ideas.  But more than that, it has reminded me of what a brilliant writer she is.  While I’ve read some, I’ve skipped over a number of the pieces that are really political in nature – after all, she’s mostly known as a political columnist and commentator. 

But she writes about much more than politics. She writes about life, people, what’s been happening to America and the world, the scary part of our loss of freedoms (e.g. how technology has impacted our loss of privacy).  She doesn’t hold back and shares herself with us. 

Peggy lives in New York City – this is not an invasion of her privacy as she openly states that herself.  I’m hoping one day to catch up with her again and share our stories and, I believe, at that time, we will be talking as we did back in the old days, now having lived very different lives but having, for a time, worked together, at a weekly newspaper, at the intimate campus of a large university in New Jersey.  It was a great ride!


Ray Visotski said...

Two great stories for the price of one, Steve!

I'm 56 and Muhamed Ali was one of the biggest sports names for me growing up. I hung on his every word and when communication was simpler, the content was generally better.

Jerry Izenberg, of The Newark Star Ledger fame, was a neighbor of ours in Warren and I remember he and my father would talk sports. I would listen. I was young and barely remember, but my dad was a Navy veteran and a cop, so he wasn't much for the protesting side of Ali, but he watched every fight and I was right there with him.

I'm looking forward to your book.

Herry jonson said...

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