DOWAGIAC — Larry Seurynck came to Cass County expecting to teach writing.
The unexpected arose at many turns, in the form of owning a business painting homes and buildings, as founder and owner of the Wood Fire Trattoria restaurant in downtown Dowagiac, and in helping to create a local boxing club for kids. The most unexpected, however, came in the form of a long friendship with the legendary boxer and cultural figure, Muhammad Ali. That relationship, along with the lessons it taught him, are showcased in Seurynck’s recently released book, “Ali and Me: Muhammad Ali, A Joy and My Journey”.
After encountering obstacles in his early days teaching at both Southwestern Michigan College and Lake Michigan College, Larry leaned on his experience painting in college, opening his own local business. He first found himself on the Berrien Springs property owned by Ali when a fellow contractor, who had the farm account, asked him to quote work there. The property was beautiful and isolated, but the farm itself was run down. Once Larry had completed his first painting job there, plenty of other work needed to be done. He found himself working for Ali consistently for nearly a decade.
“He was a genuine guy,” Seurynck described. “He was so unassuming.”
Ali would be on the farm whenever they worked and would always visit his guests. Whenever a celebration took place, all of the help was gathered to join in. It wasn’t long before Larry found himself watching boxing matches with the legendary athlete. They became friends, he got to know Ali’s wife, Lonnie, and brought his son to the farm to spend time with their son, Asaad.
“It was kinda like a family more than a working relationship in a lot of ways,” said Larry.
Muhammad Ali and his family were not what Larry expected from celebrities. Ali was humble and personable while Lonnie was brilliant and incredibly kind. Seurynck described his experience with Ali as a contrast to the famous, global presence most knew of him. He was just another normal person on the farm, playful and humorous, doing magic tricks, trying to make people laugh, and always being the center of attention.
Larry recounted the tale of Ali wearing gag costume teeth around the farm. Unable to speak, with his lips pushed out in a humorous fashion, he walked the property, finding everyone he could, acting as if all was normal. The joke would have continued long after had Lonnie not made sure the teeth were soon nowhere to be found.
“He was hilarious. He would have worn them anywhere,” Larry said. “If he had those, I swear, he would have worn them to the White House.”
When a remodel led to a storage barn being torn down, Larry was gifted by Ali an old boxing ring. He brought it to Dowagiac, where he would use it to start a Thursday night youth boxing club. A speech by Ali to commemorate the start of the program drew the attention of local news and then national news, before finally making headlines worldwide. The program grew to 240 students after the first year, eventually growing so big it was simply not sustainable. Still, Larry recognized the positive experience it provided.
“It was cool for the kids that it was associated with Ali,” said Larry.
That generosity was one small part of the positive personality that drove Seurynck to write his book. He noted Ali’s compassion and understanding to those who took his boxing license when he refused military service as a conscientious objector or his lack of ill will toward those who once refused to serve him, but then embraced his presence after becoming an Olympic Gold Medalist. He wanted to highlight the strength of Ali outside of the ring and the audacity of the man who claimed pride as an African American in a time when many of his fellows were still being taught to dislike themselves.
Ali and Me explores both Ali and Larry’s friendship and the racial inequality in the United States of America, both historically and in the current times. The book includes a fictional element, imagining a similar persona in the time of human enslavement in our country. Seurynck includes both tales of their friendship and the boxer’s influence that framed so much of his life going forward. He noted the local history in the book, highlighting our region in which generations stay and live, of children and grandchildren walking the same streets as those who came before.
“There’s a lot of Dowagiac in the book,” said Larry.
“Ali and Me: Muhammad Ali, A Joy and My Journey” is available now in both digital and physical formats. Copies may be purchased online at major retailers.