The passing of Muhammad Ali this weekend left a big hole in the Michigan town of Berrien Springs, where Ali established a training camp, and lived in his later years. 

It was not uncommon for the townsfolk of Berrien Springs, down near the Indiana border off I-94, to see Ali in line at the Dairy Queen, or eating at McDonald's.

I was in Berrien Springs on Sunday for a graduation party, and asked several residents about the impact of having an iconic figure living in their town. Many shared stories of going over to his house and simply ringing the doorbell at the front gate, only to be invited inside for a magic show, or a tour of the grounds.

Many told of him coming once a year to the elementary school where, despite the ravages of the Parkinson's Disease that deprived him of his speech, he would treat the kids to magic tricks, and even an illusion where he appeared to be levitating.

Graham Lash and his mom, brother and sister drove up to the stone-and-iron gate to Muhammad Ali’s estate and rang the buzzer.

 

It was a total whim. Unannounced. But, as Berrien Springs locals, they knew the Greatest was also the Friendliest. Indeed, Ali took them inside for more than an hour — “like we were family,” Lash said — showing them old boxing films, signing a photo and doing his trademark magic tricks.

 

Ali levitated, and Lash looked below the boxer’s feet, seeing only three inches of air. That visit in 1991 brought back memories of the time Ali levitated for Lash and schoolmates at Sylvester Elementary School in Berrien Springs, who sat on the floor and crouched down to look — a trick that many others in Berrien Springs will tell you about. They can’t explain how he did it, other than he used kindness and generosity.

 

So it was that Lash, now 37 and living nearby in Berrien Center, drove his 8-year-old son, Gavin, and 9-year-old nephew, Bryson, back to the gate on Saturday to pay respects, but also to teach them about the man.

Ali displayed an amazing generosity to the small town, from helping to finanace the local McDonald's restaurant, to providing money for building baseball fields at a high school in Niles, a running track at Berrien Springs, and school trips to New York to see Broadway shows. Stories also abound of him buying shoes and clothes for underpriveleged school kids.

It was famously known that the house Ali occupied once belonged to a bodyguard of '30s gangster Al Capone. Ali lived in the house from 1975, at the peak of his career, until he moved to Arizona in 2006.