Boxing great Muhammad Ali’s visit to local teenager marked beginning of wishes for Michigan kids

Muhammad Ali reading to child

June 2016

Rochester, Mich. (WXYZ) – Funeral services for boxing great Muhammad Ali are set for this week in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky but the former heavyweight champion also had strong ties to the state of Michigan.

Ali lived in Berrien Springs in southwest Michigan for nearly two decades. He also had a historical tie to the Rainbow Connection, a Rochester-based non-profit that grants wishes to Michigan children with life-threatening illnesses.

On July 26, 1985, Ali made a special visit to 16-year old John Bowden at Children’s Hospital in Detroit.

“Muhammad Ali made the very first wish come true for the Rainbow Connection,” said Mary Grace McCarter, the organization’s executive director.  “You can’t get anymore significant than that.”

While the former boxing champion’s visit was set up specifically for John, it did not surprise McCarter that Ali spent time with other children receiving treatment on the floor that day.

“He really showed the magic of making a dream come true,” said McCarter of Ali’s visit.  “Not just that day for John Bowden but for us to know to keep forging ahead, that making a dream come true for a child who’s so sick is a deal changer for everybody.”

Since that very first wish, Rainbow Connection has granted 3,113 others, including 162 in 2015. The wish board in the Rainbow Connection office displays photos of dozens of other children who will see their dream come true in the months ahead.

“Kids wish to go somewhere or to get something or to meet someone, like Muhammad Ali, to meet someone famous that they would never, ever otherwise meet,” she said.

The gesture by Ali brought some joy to the 16-year old during a most difficult time. John died a few days later but the memory of the visit and its impact on the teen remains with his family members to this day.