The Champ packed light when he came to Penn State in the spring of 1969. On campus that May to speak about the cultural and racial unrest at the heart of a tumultuous American moment, Muhammad Ali arrived alone, carrying nothing but a change of clothes and a radio telephone. The latter was housed inside a briefcase that, in a miracle of space-age technology, opened to reveal a handset and dialing mechanism. “He was very proud of it,” Ed Beckwith says.
The memory serves to emphasize the singular nature of both the visitor and the visit. Then 27, Ali was already one of the most recognizable men on Earth, a former Olympic and world heavyweight champion turned anti-war activist and outspoken Black Muslim. Exiled from boxing for three and a half years after his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, he stayed in the spotlight as a public figure; it was in that role that he came to Penn State as one of the keynote speakers for the inaugural Colloquy event that May.
Beckwith ’71 Sci was among the students involved in facilitating Ali’s visit for “Colloquy: The American Dream — Conflict ’69,” a nine-day, student-organized event that brought the likes of consumer activist Ralph Nader, humorist Al Capp, and dozens of others speakers to University Park for a series of speeches and panel discussions. “There were such divisions across the country, and frankly on campus as well, over racial issues, Vietnam, or academic reform. People were talking past each other and weren’t willing to listen,” says Larry Rubenstein ’71 H&HD, the Colloquy chair. “Our purpose was to find a way to get students to listen to other points of view, and to engage with experts on national issues, to try to bridge that communications gap.”
Ali was the star attraction, and he was as compelling as anticipated, telling the overwhelmingly white crowd in a packed Rec Hall that “Black Americans and white Americans will never get along … this is not race hatred. This is just nature.” His segregationist message was consistent with the position of the Nation of Islam, with which he was already in the process of falling out; Ali eventually disavowed this stance, but even at the time, the words belied the personality of the man. On stage that night, he insisted that racial harmony was unobtainable in the United States; a few hours later, he sat in a borrowed university vehicle with three white college students, singing, joking, and reciting poetry on a late-night drive through the western Pennsylvania woods.
For much of that drive to Pittsburgh, where Ali was slated to board a flight early the next morning, his student chaperones ran a cassette recorder. Ali, always at his best with an audience, consented to being recorded, and held the microphone for as long as the tape ran. Even in that intimate setting, he played to the crowd.
“I want you to tell your grandchildren that you rode the heavyweight champion of the whole world from this one-horse country town to Pittsburgh,” Ali begins. “You who may be listening to this tape, this is Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Olympic gold medal winner, two-time national Golden Glove champion, world Olympic champion. Enjoyed myself here today.”
The recording still exists; Rich Goldstein ’70 Lib, one of the passengers that night, eventually had it digitized and shared it with a select group of friends. Larry Rubenstein’s duties as Colloquy chair kept him from making the drive that night, but he has a copy of the recording; he hears in it a lesson for a country still trying to heal its own racial and cultural ills. “Ali and these white kids,” Rubenstein says, “singing and talking about the issues, respectfully, relating to one another as human beings.”
Half a century later, the recording remains a surreal document of an unlikely road trip: four young men rolling through the Pennsylvania darkness, one of them already a global icon. At one point, in the midst of a rambling treatise on his faith, finances, and fame, you can hear Ali himself acknowledge the absurdity of his presence in that car. “I travel along these highways at night … the last man of world renown, wealth, and fame that you will see in the positions that I’m in,” he said. “I’m the last man of my caliber you’ll see running around like I do.”
Jack Hermansen doesn’t remember much of the drive. A sophomore that spring, Hermansen ’75 Lib recalls meeting Ali at a downtown hotel earlier in the day and getting a glimpse of the briefcase phone. Once they left State College around midnight, the memories blur; Hermansen, the man behind the wheel that night, laughs as he says, “I guess I was focused on staying on the road.”
Ed Beckwith remembers the car as a “big Ford sedan,” borrowed from the university: Hermansen in the driver’s seat, Ali in the passenger seat, Beckwith and Rich Goldstein in the back. “As soon as we’re in the car, it gets chatty,” Beckwith says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Excuse me sir, you’re famous, would you please talk to me.’ He sits down, and we just start.”
The tape tells the story of the ride. Goldstein holds the recorder, to which a microphone is attached by a cord. Occasionally, you hear the noise of a passing car through the cracked window, or the rhythmic click of a turn signal as Hermansen slows to make a left onto 22 West. Ali, the gifted talker and natural entertainer, is happy to indulge the college kids. Grasping the mic, he has just one question.
“You’re not playing this on no radio shows, are you?”
“No,” comes the reply. “This is a private tape.”
“No radio shows?”
“I can make a copy and send it to you.”
“Oh, I’m not worried about the copy. You know this tape is worth a lot of money?”
“A lot of sentimentality, too.”
“Yeah, you’re not as dumb as you look.”
That quickly, the tone is set: Ali the jokester, in stride. He starts riffing on the crowd that attended his speech in Rec Hall.
“I enjoyed speakin’ at those college people tonight. If I had a lower IQ, I could have enjoyed the company. One of those fellas who asked me a question, his mouth was so big, when he laughed his ears disappeared … one of ’em was a kindergarten dropout.”
He goes on like that for another minute or two, a run of school-yard teasing that has the students cracking up at the cleverest lines. And then, abruptly, Ali breaks into verse.
This is the legend of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today
This brash younger fighter is something to see, and the heavyweight championship is his destiny
The kid fights great, he’s got speed and endurance, but if you decide to fight him, increase your insurance
This kid’s got a left, this kid’s got a right, if he hits you once you’ll sleep for the night
For I am the man this poem is about, the next champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt
Here I predict that I know the score, I’d be champ of the world in ’64
If Cassius say a mosquito can pull a plow, oh don’t ask how—hitch him up
You can almost hear the smiles on the faces of Beckwith, Goldstein, and Hermansen, hearing this larger-than-life figure reciting some of the rhymes that have helped him transcend his brutal sport. But you can also hear a hint of fatigue from Ali, still a young man but already world-weary.
“That was a poem from 1963, campaign of the Sonny Liston fight,” he says. “‘Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, if you want to make your money, bet on me. If you wanna be a fool and lose your money, then bet on Sonny.’” He pauses. “Those are the good old days. Now I’m through talking.”