Officials note Ali’s impact on region

Published 8:19 am Monday, January 22, 2007

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES – Many people may never know the impact Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie made on the Niles community.
The couple recently left southwest Michigan and their home near Berrien Springs and moved to Scottsdale, Ariz. During the time they lived in this area and their son Asaad attended Niles Community Schools and participated in basketball, football and baseball, the Alis made significant contributions to athletics and youth activities in general, and they did it without standing it the spotlight, said Niles superintendent Doug Law.
"The Alis were very generous in helping school groups and individual students. The really unique thing about all that is they wanted absolutely no credit," Law said. "There are literally hundreds of kids in our community that don't have any idea who paid for their gym shoes, paid for their prom tickets, or chartered a bus for a club activity. This has been going on for several years and I'm sure that I don't know all the things they did for all the kids in the community.
"Lonnie Ali specifically was very insistent on many occasions that gifts she was giving or things she was buying for a school or family that there would be no recognition of the donor," Law continued. "As I sat here and got to be part of the very genuine, very compassionate acts that the Alis were performing, it was sometimes really hard not to stand up and shout. People would often say, 'Who do we thank?'"
However, there were two projects – Champs Field and the Niles High School varsity baseball field – in which there was no secret the Alis were very instrumental in making possible. Champs Field between Howard and Ellis elementary schools was first, and in May 2006 Muhammad and Lonnie, along with Illitch Charities for Children, turned a practice diamond into maybe the top high school baseball field in Michigan.
"After Champs Field was put up a few years ago, I told [head baseball] coach [Mike] Vota he was next. This community has a long tradition of baseball and we want to renew the tradition and keep that tradition here and this was the next logical step," Lonnie said during the May 16, 2006 dedication ceremony.
Asaad got his start with Howard Township Little League at Pepper Martin Park when he was 8-years-old and later chose to attend Niles Ring Lardner Middle School from Berrien Springs. He is currently in his sophomore year.
"While he was here, he was just a regular, normal kid. We never made a big deal about it," Law said.
The Ali's humanitarian effort spread far beyond the borders of Berrien County, and a bill honoring Muhammad was passed Jan. 17 – Muhammad's 65th birthday – by the House of Representatives. The bipartisan resolution was sponsored by Rep. Julia Carson, D-Indiana, and co-sponsored by 54 members of Congress.
"Never has a sports figure inspired so many people in so many different ways. Ali has shown that a sport can be more than entertainment; it can also be a cultural event with the power to change social values," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaking on Ali's mark on the sports world and beyond. "Muhammad Ali is one of the most recognized sportsmen of all time. His legacy is one that inspires both in the ring and through his humanitarian work."
The Alis will be greatly missed in Niles, Law said.
"They impacted this community far more than people will ever really know."