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    Jean Porter: “I actually was going to a fundraiser at the Ali Center that Friday night that started at 6 and I knew when I left (for the fundraiser) that it was imminent. In fact, I said to Chris, ‘If you find out, call me because I’d like to tell the people who are there.’ It was a church kind of fundraiser, and I knew they’d want to do something or say something. My son did the opening benediction and he mentioned, ‘In case you hadn’t heard…’ He did this beautiful prayer. Here we are praying for Ali in his last moments. I knew it was possible that it had already happened.

    “Saturday morning after the flag (lowering) ceremony, the mayor went over to the Ali Center for another press conference and we walked over there with him. It struck us, and then the mayor reinforced this: the people who work at the Ali Center have lost a family member. Ali would come there, he had a little office with his own recliner where he would sit; he’d go through the place. Even though all of us knew he was going to die, it was still a shock. I think the community had gotten to the point where they just didn’t believe that he ever would die.”

     

    Chris Poynter: “We had been planning for a pretty short funeral, a couple days, so we had a really good public safety plan around that, and when Muhammad Ali died and we realized it turned into an entire week, suddenly we had to flip to a communications plan. There’s no website where you can go to find out about all things Ali. There was a website for the Ali Center, a website for boxing — but nothing about Ali in Louisville. We pulled the team together and launched the site in less than 24 hours. You had to sort of feed a weeklong series of events to the media.”

     

    JP: “And then have it not just be a national thing but international. We knew we’d get some global press, but they were here from Japan and Ireland and China and Bangladesh.”

     

    CP: “Ali loved kids. If you’ve ever seen him around kids, he just had this natural thing. I was on the phone at like 6:30 Sunday morning. I just blurted out, ‘Well, let’s have an I Am Ali festival.’ I didn’t even know what that meant. No matter what we asked of the community, everybody dropped everything and worked together, whether it was arts groups or the Kentucky Center, which gave us the space for free.”

     

    JP: “They were like, ‘OK, you can have it till 4 o’clock and then you gotta be gone because the show starts.’ I think it was Phantom of the Opera. It was amazing that it came together like it did.”

     

    CP: “We were talking early in the week about the procession. We were like, is anybody going to show up? Nobody really knew until the hearse turned onto Bardstown Road. Obviously lots of people showed up. We thought: What is Louisville going to look like on national TV that entire route? LMPD, Public Works — we all drove the route and we literally said, ‘That lot needs to be cut, that building needs to be painted, that graffiti needs to be removed.’ Whatever we asked about, people just did it.

    “When we created the website, we realized, if you’re a visitor you may not know about it. We had these little business cards that our graphic designer Priscilla did in like an hour. I said, ‘We gotta have 5,000 of these.’ So she called the printer and they were like, ‘We’re not going to be able to get to it until next week.’ Priscilla said, ‘Well, this is for Ali,’ and he dropped everything. We had the cards that afternoon.

    “We’ve said this and Lonnie has said this: It’s almost like the hand of Muhammad Ali was working invisibly from the heavens. Because even the little things that happened that week, it was like, did that just really happen?

    “We had been searching for any descendants of the guy who taught Ali to box at what is now Spalding (formerly the Columbia Gym) — a Louisville police officer, Joe Martin. We wanted to invite them to the funeral, wherever in the world they were. We couldn’t find any. The Ali family had looked. Ali Center had looked. I had looked. Monday I picked up the paper and there was a story by Tim Sullivan about the granddaughter and she lives over in Crescent Hill! I mean, we thought his family had been long gone. I called Tim from the gym at like 5:30 in the morning, like, ‘I need that girl’s number.’ She was getting ready to go to work and we said, ‘We want to introduce you to the world as Joe Martin’s descendent, can you be at the Ali Center in one hour?’

    “And the boyhood home. It’s like, did he plan this? Because a few weeks before, we were down there for the ribbon cutting. It was weird how things fell into place so easily that week.”

     

    JP: “I actually had already planned a vacation and I left town on Friday, the morning of the funeral. My husband had snuck his phone out on the airplane. We were watching the motorcade come down Ninth Street off of 64 and you could hear people shouting, ‘I am Ali.’ We were in tears on the plane. We stayed with my aunt and uncle in Jacksonville and I asked them to DVR it. I remember it was raining in Florida and we just sat in a dark room and watched the whole thing. I teared up when I saw the processional come down Ninth Street. I was proud.”

     

    CP: “I was inside the cemetery at the front gate waiting for the hearse to arrive. I had gotten there early and (artist) Maggie (Cassaro) was putting out the rose petals. I took out my phone to take a video of her. I just posted the thing on social media and it had like 2.5 million views within like two hours. I was at Cave Hill watching the procession on the TV, waiting for the hearse to arrive. When I saw that little kid shadow box, that was pretty amazing.

    “We got the hearse in. We got the family in. They went back to the grave and then the crowd started to dissipate. I looked down and — you know at the entrance of Cave Hill there’s a guard shack? Every day they have a list of burials and what time they’re coming in. Usually there are like six or seven names. There was just one sheet that read: Muhammad Ali. It was like, wow. Actually I have that paper. The cemetery gave it to me.

    “You know what else happened that week that was pretty amazing? There was not a single homicide that week. That week we had no significant crime issues. When I was sitting in the Yum! Center for the funeral, I realized this is taking on a global message here. This has moved beyond Muhammad Ali. Watching that service 20 years down the road with the context of history, what was said that day, I think that will stand the test of time.”

     

    JP: “Especially in this year. There weren’t politics, there were no murders. In this year of being so divisive on every front, it was just a breather from all that and I think that’s why it wasn’t so sad as much as it was inspiring.” 

     

    Porter is the deputy director of communications for the mayor's office. Poynter is the director of communications for the mayor's office.

     

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    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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