WILKES-BARRE — It was the early to mid 1960s when Al John had a surprise guest for dinner.
John’s friend, the late Lindy Valenti, called to say he was bringing “the champ” over for a meal.
John, who was employed as a cook back then, decided to prepare a special meal for Muhammad Ali — the heavyweight champion of the world.
“It was veal parmesan with spaghetti,” John, 83, of Moyallen Street, said. “He loved it. He ate quite a bit.”
John said he, Valenti and Ali sat around the table and talked for hours. John was living on South Franklin Street at the time, he said.
“He was a real gentleman,” John said of Ali, who died Friday. “After dinner, Lindy drove Ali back to Deer Lake.”
That’s where Ali trained for years and a place John visited with Valenti to watch the champ in action.
“Every time we went there, Ali welcomed us and told his people to ‘get my friends something to eat. He was a great guy and funny as heck,” John said.
When the news broke about Ali’s death Friday night, John said he almost dropped to the floor.
“It made me feel so bad,” John said.
John said Valenti and Ali were friends. On several occasions, John said Valenti, who operated a junkyard on Route 11 in Larksville, took food to Deer Lake for Ali and his crew.
“He took him steaks all the time,” John said of Valenti. “Ali was always very appreciative. Like I said, he was a true gentleman. He always made you laugh.”
John said Ali invited him to attend his fights, but John never went. He said Valenti did go to several of Ali’s bouts.
“But I followed his career,” John said. “I could tell that he could have really hurt some of his opponents, but he would never do that.”
When Valenti called that night to ask John to prepare a meal for Ali, he said, “Make something good for my friend.”
John said he was a little nervous that Ali was coming over for dinner, but he said the evening went well.
John, who did a little boxing when he was in the U.S. Army, said he asked Ali about his decision to not enter the service.
“He just told me that war was not something he believed in,” John said. “He was really honest about it.”
John said one time he took his son, Leo, to Deer Lake to watch Ali train.
“Ali was great to him,” John said. “My son will never forget that day.”
Al and his wife, the former Sandra Ruddick, married years after the night Ali dined at Al’s house. But they often talk about the years and the memories.
Sandra was a champion gymnast for the U.S. gymnastics team.
Sandra grew up in Indianapolis and in 1956 she won the Central States AAU meet, and at the AAU Meet, which doubled as the Olympic Trials, Ruddick won the all-around, as well as the horse vault and uneven bars. She was a member of the charter class of the Indiana Gymnastics Hall of Fame, inducted in 2012.
John said he never took any pictures the night he cooked for Ali.
“But I’ll always have those memories,” he said. “He was a great champ and a great man.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.