When word of the passing of “The Greatest” – Muhammad Ali – spread across the Mount Ida College campus, it was met with the emotions you would expect when a family loses one of its own.
Muhammad Ali was a member of our community. He received an honorary Doctor of Laws in 1994, and lent his support to a study group created in his honor. He also served as a founder and member on a selection committee of the annual Muhammad Ali Award to a graduating student who each year demonstrated a keen understanding and promotion of social justice.
When he stepped to the podium to receive his first-ever honorary degree, Ali declared, in a moment at the intersection of bravado and humility, “I’ve been called the king. I’ve been called the greatest. I’ve been called champ, and now I can be called the doc.”
In presenting him with his Mount Ida hood, Jacqueline Palmer, Professor of Sport Management at Mount Ida still remembers the moment vividly. “It was extraordinary to realize the importance to one of the most revered figures in sport and beyond, to be given an honorary doctorate and title of “Dr. Muhammad Ali.” It was a significant accomplishment added to the life of one of the greatest! She remembers “His hands were so big, his body 6’3” and he was moving on the stage. I just wanted to make sure I got that hood over his head just at the right time. What a moment in time for all in attendance during commencement.”
The relationship with Ali continued beyond the awarding of his doctorate. In 1996, Mount Ida College established a unique study group, named in his honor. The group was devoted to helping students succeed with the aid of study skills, emotional support, guidance and encouragement. In a letter to the College he said “It would be an honor for me to continue to have your study group bear my name. Although I did not go to college, I have never underestimated the value of a solid education.”
Ali went on to say “In today’s society we often think of education and the ability to receive one as nothing special – oh but it is!! There is not a day that goes by that I do not wish that I had paid more attention in school and done well as a student…..education should never be taken for granted.”
Ali returned to Mount Ida over the years and his daughter, Hana, attended the College in the 90s. He was on hand to autograph a copy of a book written about him, which resides in the campus library. At each campus visit, he took the time to meet with students, listen and to offer a hug or word of encouragement.
Greg Muldrow, who received the Muhammad Ali Award when he earned his degree in sport management in 2009 says, “I looked up to Ali because he was so courageous and inspiring at a time when there were so many barriers. He was compassionate and stood up for what he believed in, what he thought was right. He never let anyone change the person he was meant to be. The Greatest! It was an honor for me to have been associated with him through this award.” Greg now works in the finance division for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and trains and competes in Muay Thai kickboxing.
The most recent recipient, Molly Christian, a forensic science and psychology major who graduated in May and who served as social justice coordinator on campus, says she was flattered and honored to have received the award. “It is in my nature to challenge views and ideas. I grew up in a low-income household, faced many obstacles, am a gay woman and I’ve learned to push through no matter what.” Although, she says she didn’t know a lot about Ali before learning of the award, she sees many parallels.
Ali, always an advocate for education especially that of students who are the first in their families to attend college, has left a legacy well beyond what many people know of his very public life.
And as award recipient Christian heads off to work for AmeriCorps, with plans to attend graduate school and then work on a college or university campus in social justice, her philosophy to ‘push forward and not give in,’ would make Ali proud.