The Coastal Star

Around Town: Remembering Ali’s love for AIDS baby

Muhammad Ali jokingly held up a fist while holding the little Joe Lewis in 1991. Photo by Thom Smith

By Thom Smith

We all have our moments. Those fleeting ticks of time that stay with us to the grave, through good days and bad, despite the noisy kids in the cramped back seat on interminable summer trips, along with hurricanes and house fires, the first kiss. The memory may not be in 3-D, but the picture is sufficient.
    After 25 years, Aug. 30, 1991, seems as vivid as a bolt of lightning. A decade earlier the world had faced a medical dilemma that many feared would wipe out humanity. It didn’t, but in 1991 the world and Palm Beach County were still coming to grips with HIV/AIDS.  
    To provide a refuge for children who had AIDS or were HIV-positive, the Children’s Place (now Children’s Place at HomeSafe), itself only a few years old, cobbled together Connor’s Nursery. It was the first such residential center in Florida, but money doesn’t fall from the sky or flow in from government agencies, so fundraisers were organized — bazaars, flea markets, a Walk for Life.
    Terry Scott and other community activists organized Positive Link, an AIDS information and fundraising organization. Scott, a decorator who had worked on homes for George Hamilton, Johnny Cash and Gianni Versace, called on lots of friends.
    On Aug. 30, a Connor’s Nursery staffer loaded a 6-month-old infant into a car seat in the back of Scott’s Jaguar. Then Scott, with this writer (then at The Palm Beach Post) riding shotgun, drove to Miami Beach to hook up with another former client.
    We arrived at the Alexander Hotel about 10:30 a.m. and Scott, holding the baby, knocked on the door of the suite. As it opened, Scott held out the child and said: “Joe Lewis, meet Muhammad Ali!”
    Ali’s huge hands trembled. Parkinson’s had robbed him of his athleticism but it couldn’t defeat the legendary twinkle. He immediately wrapped his big arms around Joe … and the trembling stopped.
The baby’s name had a different spelling from that of boxing legend Joe Louis.
    “Is he an orphan?” Ali whispered to Scott, who explained the mother had AIDS and was fighting a crack cocaine addiction.
    “How long will he live?”
    Told that newborns had a 70 percent chance of survival if their antibodies took over from the mothers’, he added, “That’s good,” then surprised the group by announcing that he had a 4-month-old that he’d recently adopted.
    For 45 minutes, Ali held Joe, played with him, cuddled him as he sat in a big easy chair, and even performed his legendary “levitation” magic trick. His words often were so soft that only Howard Bingham understood. Bingham is the professional photographer who became Ali’s biographer, friend, confidant and mouthpiece.
    But it remained the Ali and Joe show, as the champ posed for photos with the kid, knurling his lip and clenching a fist at the baby’s chin while Joe kept looking away, as if ducking the punch or wondering, “Who is this big guy and why am I here?”
    Scott produced photographs and a pair of boxing gloves that Ali gleefully but laboriously autographed. The hands no longer stung like a bee.
    Ali first made headlines as Cassius Clay, light-heavyweight champion at the 1960 Tokyo Olympics, and he became the world heavyweight champ four years later when he beat Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center. He was back in town in 1991 because the city had dedicated an area in the center as the Muhammad Ali Hall of Champions.
    But now it was time to hit the road. As Bingham and Muhammad Ali Jr. hurriedly packed for flights leaving in an hour, Ali continued to entertain and be entertained by Joe.
    “Children are exiles from heaven,” Ali said as he whispered goodbye to his old friend Scott and to his new friend for the last time.
    The ride back to Palm Beach was marked by its silence as each occupant absorbed the experience.
    Scott died from AIDS in 1993. Connor’s Nursery closed years ago, its mission assumed by other health agencies. Attempts to find Joe and his mother hit dead ends. But 25 years later, on the day of Ali’s memorial service in Louisville, those 1991 memories regained clarity when, by luck, I discovered my photos from that visit.
    I felt blessed.
    I watched the memorial celebration, which Ali planned in advance of his death: priests, imams, rabbis, a Native American chief, ministers. Who would’ve imagined Orrin Hatch, a conservative leader, a Mormon, but he was Ali’s friend. Or Natasha Mundkur, a 19-year-old student who never met Ali, but his example changed her life. Former President Bill Clinton spoke.
    “Half a century and a lifetime of experience later, I am still awestruck and I am still convinced he is the greatest,” Jupiter resident Bryant Gumbel marveled at the memorial.
    To Billy Crystal, Ali “was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air.”
    “He was still a kid from Louisville who ran with the gods and laughed with the crippled and smiled at the foolishness of it all. He is gone, but he will never die.”
    Curiously, no boxers were invited to speak. Not even an athlete. The common thread: All were storytellers who helped us realize that everyone who ever met Ali must feel blessed.
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    Muhammad Ali wasn’t the only celebrated Louisville native to leave us last month. Marjorie Fisher died June 12 at her Palm Beach home. She was 92. Her death will not have the visceral impact of Ali’s, but it will be felt far beyond the bluegrass or the shores of Lake Worth.
She was blessed with charm, knockout beauty, a flair for fashion and a love of the arts. She also knew how to get things done. When her first marriage didn’t work out, she took her two children to Detroit. There she met Max Fisher, who ran one of the largest gas station operations in the Midwest.
    The marriage worked: Max adopted her son and daughter; he became a major force in real estate and business, in Jewish and nonsectarian causes and in Republican politics. He became confidant and adviser to presidents and prime ministers.  
    Marjorie raised the kids and worked to improve the lives of others. The philanthropy of the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation has had worldwide effect. Founded in 1955 and permanently endowed by Dorothy after Max died in 2005, it is pledged “to enrich humanity by strengthening and empowering children and families in need.”
    In the past eight years, its involvement has topped $100 million.  
    The Detroit Symphony performs at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, affectionately known as “The Max.” Ohio State University, which Max attended on a football scholarship, has the Fisher College of Business. In addition to many Jewish service agencies, the foundation supports the American Research Center in Egypt, the Library of Congress, and the AIDS study program at the University of Alabama.
    The clubhouses at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County facility on Drexel Road in West Palm Beach are known as “The Max” and “The Marge.” She served on the board of the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, supported the Salvation Army, United Way and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
    The Fisher legacy should be in good hands with the children, notably Mary Fisher, who is recognized internationally for her work to promote prevention, education and treatment for HIV/AIDS.    
    For Marjorie, the mission was simple: “You are here for a reason — to help other people. Everything in life is based on love and what you can do to help others. The rest is just cream — sometimes sour cream — but it’s all cream.”
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    The bride wore white, but not a toque, as celeb chef Lindsay Autry married super foodie David Sabin June 4. Autry, a North Carolinian who first made a name for herself on Bravo’s Top Chef competition, hit South Florida like a tornado, first at the Omphoy in Palm Beach under the tutelage of Michelle Bernstein, then at Sundy House in Delray and the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival. Sabin, who happens to be director of the festival, proposed during the event at The Breakers in December 2014. Call it love at first bite.  
    Although The Breakers may be an international nuptial destination, the couple opted for a little Low Country loving, exchanging vows at The Cedar Room in a 140-year-old former cotton mill in romantic  Charleston, S.C.
    On the guest list: Bernstein, Clay Conley (Buccan, Grato) Tim Lipman (Coolinary Cafe in Palm Beach Gardens) and Food Network’s Robert Irvine.
    Now it’s back to work. Autry is teaming with Thierry Beaud and the gang at Titou Hospitality (Pistache, PB Catch, etc.) on The Regional: Kitchen & Public House. It’ll take over the former McCormick & Schmick’s site on the south side of CityPlace. Opening, however, is still months away.
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No network wedding for Vinny, the Delray Beach barber. The Bachelorette dismissed him June 20. Of course, had JoJo, the pursued, stuck with Vincent Ventiera for the duration, it would have turned the Cinderella legend on its head. Perry Como may have done OK, but barbers seldom score top ratings.
Although he got royally soused on camera in the first show, Vinny had much to offer — he’s a charmer, has a winning smile and no tattoos. But just how much barbering does he do?
The Facebook page for MoJo’s Barbershop at Mission Bay Plaza way out in West Boca makes a big deal of “Vinny V’s  Chair” and displays photos of him clipping a couple of heads, but the receptionist said the New York City native hasn’t worked there in months.
Actually, Vinny is better known around town as a DJ. He spins records at Salt7 in Delray, although corporate records list his residence as Boynton Beach. Maybe he’ll capitalize on his 15-plus minutes of fame and open a chain of hip salons with DJ stations.
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    The National Croquet Club in West Palm Beach is offering free lessons every Saturday morning at 10. The club provides the mallets, balls and courts; you provide flat-soled shoes. Even though proper croquet attire remains all white, the club permits any color for lessons — but no swimsuits, please.
    After the session, enjoy a mojito on the veranda or try lunch in the Croquet Grille. (Reservations required: 478-2300, ext. 3.)
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    With the closing June 26 of the Noel Coward comedy Hay Fever, the season at FAU is over. Now it’s time for music as Festival Repertory 2016 continues its 18th annual summer fling with perennial favorite Once Upon a Mattress. It opens a 14-show run July 9 at the Studio One Theatre on the Boca Raton campus.
    A week later, the FWS Jazz Orchestra, a professional ensemble-in-residence at FAU directed by Kyle Prescott and featuring vocals by multitalented Chloe Dolandis, will perform “Big Band Hits from the Golden Age” in the University Theatre at 7 p.m. July 16 and 2 p.m. July 17.
Heather Coltman, who not only serves as dean of the College of Arts and Letters but also plays a mean piano, will be joined by a few friends for Piano Gala Extravaganza, a four-piano tour de force of pop and classical favorites. Shows are at 4 p.m. July 23 and 24 at the University Theatre. For tickets, as low as $12 for students, visit www.fau.edu/festivalrep or call (800) 564-9539.
                                    ***
On the road again . . .
The Schappert sisters, Nicole and Stephanie, planned to be back in Eugene, Ore., for the U.S. Olympic track and field trials that run through July 10. The girls and their parents, Ken and Jane of Delray Beach, hope the girls’ efforts will lead to a longer trip — the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In the past year, the St. John Paul II high school and Villanova grads have begun to make their marks in international competition.
Last summer in Eugene, in only her second 5,000 meters ever, Nicole, 29, won the U.S. Nationals with a time of 15:06:44. She cut that to 15:04.08, third best in the nation, then finished 14th at the world championships in Beijing. Nicole is married to Sean Tully, another Villanova runner, and trains with her sister with the  NJ/NY Track Club in New Jersey.
Stephanie, 23, graduated from Villanova last year and was named Big East Scholar-Athlete of the Year. She concentrates on the shorter races and closed out her collegiate career with a fourth place in the 1,500 at the World University Games. She has since cut her personal best by four seconds to 4:09.41, 12th best in the latest rankings.
                                    ***
    After five years, Arts Garage founder Alyona Ushe is gone, not without pressure; but the move appears to be good for everyone involved. The board of Creative City Collaborative decided to proceed with two directors, Dan Schwartz and Keith Garsson. Ushe will run the expanding arts facilities for the city of Pompano Beach.
Schwartz, who has served as finance director for more than two years, will continue in that position. But he now has the title of co-director with Garsson, who has experience in investment banking and in artistic production. Before joining the Collaborative as operations director, he was artistic director for the Boca Raton Theatre Guild. He will handle programming.  
Meanwhile, the shows go on. A late June booking featured rock drummer Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame. He performed a musical tribute to his late bandmate Keith Emerson on June 26 and the next night showed off his artwork.
July shows include the campy Cupcake Burlesque (July 8), improvised jams based on Cuban music themes by Spam Allstars (July 9), guitarist Joey Gilmore (July 16), vocalist Chloe Dolandis (July 22), jazz harmonica and vibraphone player Hendrik Meurkens and quartet (July 23) and jazz-funk-fusion sax player Khris Royal & Dark Matter (July 29).  For tickets, go to artsgarage.org.         

Ushe became involved with Pompano Beach in 2014 and already manages the Pompano Beach Amphitheater. She also will run the city’s cultural complex, which includes a new library and performance hall. Construction is expected to wrap early next year.
    Pompano Beach has aspirations to become another Delray Beach and has been working with several local entrepreneurs and restaurateurs to develop similar projects to the south.
                                    ***
Atlantic Avenue can seem deserted during the dog days of summer, so restaurateurs and local businesses hope to generate some action Aug. 1-7 with the first Downtown Delray Restaurant Week. The program includes take-out specials and prix fixe lunch and dinner deals, cooking classes, wine-tastings, and chef demonstrations.
Participating restaurants include 50 Ocean, Atlantic Grille, Big Al’s Steaks, Boston’s, Caffe Luna Rosa, DaDa, Deck 84, Eat Market, Gary Rack’s Farmhouse Kitchen, Rack’s Fish House & Oyster Bar, Honey, Juice Papi, Max’s Harvest, Max’s Social House, Mellow Mushroom, Salt7, Solita & Mastino, The Office and Tryst and more are expected. Proceeds will benefit Healthy Bellies, a program for underprivileged children and families founded by Dada chef Bruce Feingold and his wife, Amanda. (downtowndelraybeach.com/restaurantweek or 243-1077).
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One new spot, however, won’t open in time for Restaurant Week. The waterfront site restaurant just south of Atlantic Avenue on the east side of the Intracoastal — formerly Hudson — has been leased by a company that owns 15 Argentine steakhouses in Spain called Che!
Uber restaurant broker Tom Prakas, who arranged the deal, says this venture, which hopes to open this fall, will not be known as Che! and will be anything but a steakhouse.
“It’ll be a new concept — fresh seafood, a sushi bar and a raw bar,” Prakas said.
                                    ***
Last month, Josie’s Ristorante & Pizzeria in Boynton’s Riverwalk Plaza announced an enticing summer promotion: It cut all its menu prices by 25 percent. But the bigger story is what comes with that savings.
The Setticasi family — Stephane and Stephanie — has owned Josie’s since 1992. Son Sebastiano serves as chef de cuisine, but in recent weeks someone has been looking over his shoulder.
To the food cognoscenti, Mark Militello is a god. Nearly three decades ago, he was a leader of the “Mango Gang,” a group of chefs credited with  developing “Floribbean,” an amalgam of Italian, Asian and Caribbean styles. He won the James Beard Award as best chef in the Southeast. His restaurant ventures included Mark’s Mizner Park in Boca and Mark’s City Place in West Palm Beach. More recently he created the menus for The Office in Delray Beach, then took a turn at 75 Main. But after it closed three years ago, he headed to the original 75 Main in the Hamptons.
Meanwhile, he’s been consulting, and when the Setticasis called, he answered. Mangia!

Thom Smith is a freelance writer. Reach him at thomsmith@ymail.com.

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