After Muhammad Ali moved to a farm in Nelson County in 1982, it wasn’t that unusual to spot him on the Downtown Mall, and his local connections remained even after he moved away. The boxing and civil rights legend died June 3 at age 74.
Ali planned his funeral several years ago with the help of his Charlottesville lawyer and friend of 30 years, Ron Tweel, who is making arrangements for his funeral in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Tweel’s daughter, Jennifer Kelly, grew up with Ali and his fourth wife, Lonnie, as regulars in her parents’ house—and as role models.
“When we were little,” says Kelly, “Dad would talk about how powerful [Ali] was, how he gave up years of his career for what he believed and that’s how people should act.”
Shortly after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, Ali, born Cassius Clay, changed what he called his “slave name” and announced he was a Nation of Islam convert.
He was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 when he refused to be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam, and he memorably said, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He explained, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971—after he’d lost four prime fighting years.
Kelly also is an admirer of Lonnie. “They were a powerful couple,” she says. “She is a formidable, smart, generous, strong woman I look up to.”
The last time Kelly saw Ali was in October 2014 at her husband’s restaurant, Maya, and she remembers him watching a clip of his fight with Joe Frazier.
“I knew him as this powerful person who stood up for what he believed,” she says. “I feel so fortunate that Lonnie and Muhammad have been a part of my life. He’s influenced so many people.”
In a statement, Kelly describes Ali as “a boxer and a man fighting for civil rights as well as battling Parkinson’s. He was a fighter. But more importantly he was a lover. What I observed is that he approached everything in a deep foundation of love.”
For Chaps Ice Cream owner Tony LaBua, who grew up on Long Island, where boxing was big, and who did some boxing himself, Ali “was just our boxing idol,” he says.
LaBua bought a book by Ali at a yard sale and knew he was a friend of Tweel’s. One day the attorney was in Chaps buying pints of ice cream and LaBua said, “Next time the Champ’s in town, ask him if he’ll sign my book.”
“‘He’s in my office right now,’” LaBua remembers Tweel saying. He went to Tweel’s MichieHamlett offices, and the attorney said, “‘Champ, I’ve got your biggest fan here,” says LaBua.
Ali signed the book. “He looked at me and said, ‘That’ll be $5,’” says LaBua, who has photos of Ali in his restaurant. LaBua joined in the joke and said, “That ice cream cost $12. Your attorney ran out without paying. You owe me $7.”
Tuel Jewelers’ Mary DeViney says when he lived in the area, “You’d see him all the time.”
She saw a philanthropic side to Ali when she was chair of the multiple sclerosis TV auction sponsored by the Jaycees. “We’d get old boxing gloves and he’d sign them,” she says. “He didn’t have to do that. He would give back to this community. He did it so the money would go to research. That’s being part of the community.”
Adds DeViney, “In Phoenix or wherever he was, I bet you’ll find these same stories.”