I never met the man whom Sports Illustrated designated the greatest sportsman of the twentieth century. But somewhere at home I have his autograph. It’s inside my copy of King of the World, signed not by the author (David Remnick) but by the subject himself—the Greatest of All Time, or G.O.A.T. The book is subtitled Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero.
Ali’s death earlier this month reminded me of the occasion for my receiving that book. It was made possible by an Emory hero, who passed away just three months before Ali himself. That man was Herbert R. Karp, a graduate of Emory College (1943) and Emory School of Medicine (1951), who had a long and distinguished career as neurologist, chair of the Department of Neurology, and first medical director of the nation’s first geriatric hospital, the Wesley Woods Center. He retired at 90 and died at a youthful 94.
One of Emory’s great faculty citizens, Herb received the Thomas Jefferson Award in 1983 for his service to the university. By the 1990s his leadership needed still more recognition, so the Herbert R. Karp Leadership Award was created to honor persons who advance understanding of neurological diseases.
Beginning in 1994 Ali was coming to Emory for treatment of his Parkinson’s disease by Mahlon Delong, the William Timmie Patterson Professor of Neurology and recipient of the 2014 Lasker Award for his transformative work in treating Parkinson’s disease.
In the spring of 1999, three years after Ali lit the cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics, I received a request. Ali would be coming to Emory again, and the Woodruff Health Sciences Center wanted to present him with the Karp Award at a small ceremony. Would I write a citation for the occasion? No guarantee that I could meet the champ.
Of course I agreed, and here is the citation that was read as The Greatest received the award named for another great man.
The President, Faculty, and Trustees of Emory University take pleasure in honoring
Known in the world’s smallest hamlets and glens,
Feted in palaces, cheered to the sky,
Bearing the name of Muhammad (which means
“Worthy of all praise”) Ali (“The most high”).
Shaking the world, you held fast to your soul,
Pugilist wearing world peace as a belt;
Boxer, now helping the battered live whole.
Self-contradictions resolve themselves, melt.
Raising a torch of Olympian fire,
Thus, in an image, rekindling joys past;
Teaching us life’s hardest lesson—that dire
Change comes to all, and all must be, at last,
Grateful for mercies and magic—for grace
Poetry gives when the spirit lives free:
These things we ponder while noting your place—
Spelled with initials, the G-O-A-T.
You show us how to live life as an art:
Float like a butterfly—lead with your heart.
I never did get to meet the Champ that day. But I look forward to rereading the book.