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    “Well, it was commencement weekend for us, which is a busy time, and Friday evening I received word that things were not good. We were having a reception for our honorary-degree recipients, and we did a moment of silence for Muhammad. Saturday morning I got up and read the paper. And I was fine, sort of kept it together, like, It’s commencement, I have to keep it together. I got in the car to drive to the place where we were having the commencement ceremony and I just lost it. And I cried all the way. We do it at Canaan Christian church, and I cried all the way to Canaan. So I just sat in the car and had to pull it together and went inside. There were lots of folks who knew I had worked for Muhammad and was the first full-time employee of the Ali Center. I was someone he pushed around in a playful kind of way. Folks that morning were trying to steer clear of me, because every time somebody said, ‘I’m sorry,’ I was like, ooh, not now. Just trying to keep it together. So I chucked my commencement address, which I had worked on for quite some time, and talked about Muhammad Ali and his connection to Spalding and how he had boxed in the Columbia Gym (now the University Center) and how he worked in our library.

    “Sunday morning I got up and just felt the need to do something to honor Muhammad. My husband Mac has a daughter named Clay. Clay’s in her 30s, and Mac still had Clay’s bicycle from when she was a child up in the garage. It was a red Schwinn bike. I was dragging the bike down the stairs and it was covered in cobwebs and mud dauber nests, and there was this clang clang clang going down the stairs. It was this bar that you use to turn a girl’s bicycle into a boy’s bicycle. Only my husband would save a bike from 20 years ago and have the bar still. I put the bar on it and brought it to campus and put a bunch of blue and yellow ribbons on it because those are Spalding’s colors. I climbed out on the roof on the University Center building and I was busy trying to hang it up on the side of the building when a campus safety officer rode by on his bike and he looked up and said, ‘Oh, it’s just Tori,’ and he kept riding by. I got it all situated and went home and didn’t think anything about it. I deliberately didn’t try to put any kind of sign saying what the bike meant. Within a day or two, the pictures of the bicycle started to go viral. I was really shocked, because how many people would know about the red-bicycle story?” (In case you don’t know the story: Somebody stole Ali’s red Schwinn bicycle when he was a boy. When Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, told a police officer he wanted to “whup” the thief, the officer, who trained boxers, told the boy he should learn how to fight first. — Ed.)

    “I had to leave town Friday morning to give a speech. We had sent out students with the Spalding flag to be there as the motorcade came by. I waited as long as possible to see Muhammad’s procession go by. I waited and waited, and I had to go catch an airplane. Then, when I was giving the speech — it was in North Carolina — I was angry that I did. If the organizers hadn’t been so grateful…I felt like I should have canceled and gone to the service.

    “Muhammad knew better than I did what it was like to fail on a worldwide stage. He’d just come by and give me a nudge every now and then like, ‘Kid, you gotta get up again. Can’t lie down.’ We were working on the Ali Center one afternoon with some consultants. Muhammad got bored and asked if he could leave and Lonnie said OK. So he and (biographer) Howard Bingham sort of went trotting off, and I was dispatched sometime later to go find them. We were in the Galt House somewhere and, sure enough, I found Muhammad devouring a plate of fried chicken. I was like, ‘Muhammad!’ He was like, ‘Don’t tell Lonnie.’ He invited me to sit down, and we got into this conversation, back and forth, and I told him that there were a couple other women who were thinking about rowing across the ocean. He said, ‘Tori, you don’t want to go through life as the woman who almost rowed across the Atlantic.’ I probably would have gone anyway, but having Muhammad Ali as your excuse was a pretty good one.

    “Muhammad was one of the most viscerally compassionate human beings I’ve ever met. And I’ve thought about that quite a bit. Spalding was declared a compassionate university and I’ve had the opportunity to become friends with Karen Armstrong, who was one of the principal authors of the Charter for Compassion. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu signed onto the charter. I adore Karen Armstrong, but she gets compassion intellectually; she doesn’t get compassion in her heart. She and I are very much alike. If an introvert’s a zero and an extrovert’s a 10, I’d be about a 1; Karen Armstrong would be about a minus-12. Muhammad would be, I don’t know, a 50. Muhammad just had this sort of emanating magic of compassion, and he didn’t care who you were or where you came from. He knew that you had your own hurts and pains.”

    McClure is the President of Spalding University.

     

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    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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