Willoughby: Chance encounters with greatness | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Chance encounters with greatness

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
President Carter greets Muhammad Ali at the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty.
Library of Congress |

The recent passing of Muhammad Ali reminded me of an Aspen tradition. Since the 1930s, we have granted celebrities respectful anonymity. Children develop their own version of that behavior.

When I worked at Aspen Country Day School in the 1970s and 1980s, we served our share of celebrities’ children. We treated them neither better nor worse than the other students, despite their parents’ fame. One celebrity parent, John Denver, attracted record-breaking crowds to enormous venues nationwide. For him, Aspen was not a retreat, but rather his community.

At that time, Aspen Country Day School began with a morning gathering of all grades, which at the time extended from kindergarten through high school. Denver dropped in one morning to sing a few songs. The adults were overjoyed. Although the students joined in the sing-alongs, clearly to them the performance was simply a bring-your-parent-to-school type of event. They knew Denver as Anna Kate’s and Zachery’s daddy. The older students acted like older students everywhere. This was not their kind of music, sung by a man who was not their idol.

Not long after, the roles reversed. Denver arrived at our Christmas music program, early enough to claim a front-row seat in the choir loft. There, without obstructions, he could video-record his children’s performances. I remember his proud parental excitement far exceeded the energy of the youth at his school performance. Every performer becomes a celebrity in their parents’ eyes.

Aspen Country Day School students accorded similar reserve to sports celebrities. Returning from a trip to Denver, the school bus stopped in Dillon for gas and snacks. Half the students remained in the bus while the adults supervised in the store and pumped gas. Seeming to come out of nowhere, an African-American athlete leaped into the bus. With a giant smile he entertained the startled students for a few minutes. Then he left as quickly as he had arrived. As he departed, one of the teachers instantly recognized the mystery man: Muhammad Ali. The Greatest of All Time had stopped for gas, too. A member of his small entourage explained that Ali loved kids and shared his “You can be great, too” message wherever he traveled.

Commenters during this time of Ali’s passing have noted Ali was considered the most recognizable celebrity in the world. But Country Day School students did not recognize Ali until teachers reminded them. Even then they did not know much — if anything — about him. Had he visited our school we would have introduced Ali appropriately. Given Aspen’s toned-down treatment of celebrities, I suspect he may have felt disappointed with the reception at first. Even so, it is likely he would have warmed up the crowd, as usual, by the time he left.

I am sure those students now will tell their children about that chance encounter with greatness. They will likely remember that Ali, though famous, went out of his way to meet, cheer and inspire children. Ali worked as hard to develop as a human being as he did to build athletic skills and fame. What a model celebrity!

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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