by Tisha D. Arnold
The year was 1990 and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was in the midst of Homecoming festivities when they laid eyes upon World Championship Boxer Muhammad Ali atop a convertible car making its way down Main Street. He was the Honorary Grand Marshall of the UAPB/AM&N Homecoming Parade.
According to an October 19, 1990 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Ali was set to spend two days in Arkansas. Although this wasn’t his first time in the State, those that encountered him witnessed a man that was engaged in his environment and was an active participant in homecoming activities.
Alumni Affairs Director John Kuykendall was part of the group that went to pick Ali up when he arrived in Little Rock Thursday night. In a November 10, 1990 article by the Pine Bluff Commercial, the current Chancellor Dr. Charles Walker was amazed by his reaction to the crowd that was present when he unboarded the plane.
“I thought he would never leave [the airport] because the people just kept coming to see him. He shook hands, took pictures and talked to just about everyone that approached him. He is a class individual.”
During his visit, Ali spent time at the L.A. Davis, Sr. Student Union talking to students for a few hours.
Chancellor Emeritus Dr. Carolyn Blakely was assistant to the Chancellor at the time and remembers Ali as a very talkative type. He was very cordial when he interacted with students. She recalled him bragging about a trick he could do and reveling in the amazement of the crowd once he did it.
“He could make himself seem like he could walk on air,” Blakely said. “He enjoyed doing that for us and the students.”
Retired Assistant Director of Recruitment Carl Whimper was Sports Information Director then and said Ali was the same jolly person people saw on TV. When he went to the Kenneth L. Johnson HPER complex for the alumni assembly, he was named an honorary Golden Lion. Whimper also recalled the Chancellor Walker leading the audience in chanting, “Ali!” “Ali!” “Ali!” in honor of their distinguished guest. “That was perhaps the largest crowd we’ve had since my tenure at UAPB,” Whimper said.
Victor Bender is a 1967 AM&N (now UAPB) alumnus and close friends with Ali, having grown up with him since age 13. According to Bender, Ali enjoyed being in the parade downtown and was very complimentary of the experience he had at UAPB. It was important to Bender and Ali to encourage others while Ali had his health. Although Bender knew Ali’s health continued to decline after that visit, he noted that Parkinson’s disease don’t usually live as long as his friend did.
Curtis Corbin, a resident of Pine Bluff, remembers attending the Homecoming parade and enjoyed watching Ali interact with the crowd. He was impressed with Ali’s open connection with people.
“He stayed on the top floor of the Plaza Hotel (connected to the Convention Center), greeted everyone from the atrium and came down to greet people and sign autographs,” Corbin said. “I really admire him as a person – he stood up for what he believed in. He referred to himself as being the greatest – I’m glad he spent the rest of his days showing that he could be even greater.”