Sports legend Muhammad Ali died yesterday at the age of 74. Ali is being memorialized in media all over the world today, including our hyper-local publication where he touched the lives of two residents of Fremont Place where he lived from 1979 to 1986 in a stunning, historic mansion built in 1915 for Martin Henry Mosier and designed by architect John C. Austin.
“I was really sad to hear the news of his death,” said Barbara Kumetz, a Fremont Place resident who got to know Ali during his tenure in the neighborhood. “He was a great guy, such an icon in the world of sports and in life, he was a hero to a lot of people.”
“Muhammad Ali used to live at 55 Fremont Place with his two daughters, Hana and Laila who about the same ages as my daughters,” recalled Kumetz. “When they were little they used to play together, trading houses for playdates. I didn’t see him or talk to him all that much, but one day his daughters wanted to spend the night. The girls were in about third and fifth grade, so I called the house to make sure it was OK. To my surprise, he answered the phone. I explained the situation and asked if it was OK for the girls to spend the night and I would walk them home in the morning. He said sure, that’s very nice but I need to tell you, we are Muslim and we don’t eat pork. I said, that’s fine, we are Jewish and we don’t eat pork either! We both laughed.”
On another occasion, Kumetz recalled Ali came to the house to pick up his daughters, to the delight and surprise of another parent.
“The father of a one of the kids was standing at the front door waiting and he told me, ‘I looked up and there’s the champ!’ he said he would never forget that evening,” said Kumetz. One day, Kumetz’s daughter Fiona, came home with a drawing, excitedly showing her mother, “look what Mr. Ali gave me,” recalled Kumetz. “He had made her a drawing! I told her, ‘Fiona, go back and get him to sign it,’ but she never did and I was too embarrassed to go ask myself. I kept the drawing for years and years until it finally disappeared. I’m so sorry that I didn’t have the chutzpah to ask him to sign it.”
Kumetz recalled that Ali was soft spoken and sometimes difficult to understand, but he was always a sweet, nice man who seemed very astute. She also admired him for standing up for his principles and for winning back his heavyweight title after the Supreme Court reversed his conviction as a draft dodger in 1971.
“Good for him for fighting,” said Kumetz. “I thought that was pretty cool.”
Another Fremont Place resident, William Simon, said, “I met Muhammad Ali in 1978 at a campaign fundraising dinner in Las Vegas with Miss Lillian, former President Carter’s mother, Frank Sinatra and his wife Barbara and former Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer, among others…It was a truly unique and very memorable evening.”
“At that time, Miss Lillian was a featured guest at a number of campaign events during the mid-term elections in 1978 and I was tasked with accompanying her,” said Simon, who served at the time as Staff Secretary for President Carter, working directly under Hamilton Jordan, then Chief of Staff.
“Miss Lillian was a colorful character who enjoyed gambling on occasion,” explained Simon. “My job was to make sure she wasn’t photographed gambling or losing too much money. Neither occurred!” Ah, political life before the explosion of social media.
“My first and lasting oppression of meeting Ali was shaking hands with him. His hands seemed to me like bear paws, giant and incredibly soft just like his whisper-like voice,” said Simon. “Some twenty years later I found myself on the same airplane to Miami with Ali. We ended up going to the baggage claim together reminiscing about that special night in Las Vegas. We said goodbye at baggage claim. The next day, I tuned on the news in my hotel and was surprised to see Ali standing with Fidel Castro. Ali had somehow managed to avoid the US travel ban and entered Cuba on a humanitarian mission.”