It was a cold night at the Louisville airport, two years after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I was standing in a taxi line-up waiting for a ride to take me back to my house in Prospect, KY – an ordeal that could last more than an hour when there was any hint of snow on the local roads, as was the case that night. This was all part of my life at the time as a GE executive at Appliance Park.
I noticed an unusual buzzing in the normally stoic line-up, with everyone looking to their left and speaking in hushed tones. I instinctively looked as well, and was startled to see Muhammad Ali standing by himself, his arms vibrating in small tremors and his face virtually frozen, just as he had appeared at the Opening Ceremony in Atlanta. It was not unusual for people to have Ali sightings in Louisville, as he was known to come back to his hometown from time to time in support of various causes. Even so, it did strike me as odd to see such an icon standing by himself waiting for his ride to arrive, particularly given his poor state of health. I suspected that his limo had been delayed by the weather.
No one made any attempt to approach Ali and I wondered if this reticence came from an effort to give the man some privacy, or if people were uncomfortable seeing this once magnificent athlete ravaged by Parkinson’s disease. I observed for a few more moments, and it seemed to me that he was struggling to pull on his overcoat. Everyone in the taxi line had buttoned and zipped their own coats to keep out the winter chill, but Ali was shivering in his light suit, unable to get his coat over his shoulders.
Noticing that no one else was there to help him, I walked over and asked him if his car was coming soon and if he needed help with his coat. I think he nodded – I’m still not sure – but he didn’t seem offended by my offer. I carefully put his coat on him, buttoned it up, probably said something about how much I admired him as an athlete and as a champion of social causes, and then walked back to my place in the taxi line. A short while later his car arrived and whisked him away and eventually a taxi took me back home.
I hadn’t thought about that brief encounter in years, but it came back to me this week when I heard the news of his death. Muhammad Ali was one of the most famous and transformational personas of the 20th century. Winning the World Heavyweight Championship three times – a feat that will likely never be repeated – is almost a footnote to his legacy. His early and courageous resistance to the Vietnam War, not to mention his unapologetic pride in his athletic skills, his race and his religion made him a symbol of hope and change to hundreds of millions of people around the world. He was the greatest!
Yet on that cold night in Louisville, the frustrated travellers in the taxi line weren’t only spotting a celebrity, they were witnessing a frail man with Parkinson’s trying to put on his coat. As I look back on this brief encounter, I realize how important it is for all of us to see the human being, complete with frailties and imperfections, that often lies in the shadow behind the bright persona that we try to present to the world.