A BRUSH WITH THE GREATEST: 39 years ago, Muhammad Ali came to Chester

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Autographed police report

A portion of the autographed police report taken when Muhammad Ali’s bus was disabled on I-91

In the days following the death of Muhammad Ali on Friday, June 3, the airwaves, internet and print press have been filled with appreciations and recollections of the three-time world heavyweight champion’s life.

And in a small house in a quiet Chester neighborhood, a few residents have their own personal memories of Ali.

On Sunday Oct. 2, 1977, Vermont State Trooper Robert Collins was on patrol out of the Rockingham Barracks. Shortly after 5:30 p.m. Collins answered a call for a disabled vehicle near the Saxtons River Bridge on Interstate 91. Arriving on the scene in his Plymouth cruiser, the trooper found a 1968 GMC motorcoach with a flat right front tire. At the coach’s door, Collins was offered a huge hand to shake. It belonged to a smiling Muhammad Ali.

Ali, his wife Veronica, their 13-month-old daughter Ilana and members of the boxer’s staff were traveling back from Franconia College – a short-lived experimental school in New Hampshire – where the boxer had received an honorary degree, when the tire went flat. That might not ordinarily have been a problem, but on the previous day, the bus had been involved in an accident on I-95 in Stamford, Conn., on the way to Franconia and either did not have a spare or the sheet metal damage done in the accident made it impossible to get the spare out.

ali & collins 2

At Ali’s suggestion, he and troopers Collins, left, and Cutting, right, stage a photo at the Rockingham barracks. ‘He designed that pose,’ said Cutting. Apparently it is similar to ones Ali staged around the country. Photos provided.

So at nearly 6 p.m. on a Sunday evening, Collins called for Rouse Enterprises to get a tire and make the change. All they could do was wait. Ali asked if he could visit the troopers’ barracks and meet the State Police personnel. Collins explained that on a Sunday night there wouldn’t be many there, but he was willing to take him there anyway.

“He could be serious one minute and then funny and joking,” said Collins at home in Chester on Monday. “But he was just comfortable with people. I think he felt welcomed and he was enjoying himself.”

“Just his presence to me was amazing,” recalled Glenn Cutting, who was a 23-year-old trooper at the time and went on to be a captain in the state police. “He was 6 foot 4, 225 pounds, in great shape and he was fun to be around.”

“His face was still swollen” from his bout with Ernie Shavers three days earlier at Madison Square Garden, said Collins. And when Ali jokingly tried to put handcuffs on himself, he had trouble getting one around his swollen wrist. “If you hit as hard as we do, you’d be swollen too,” Ali told the troopers, saying that Shavers hit harder than anyone else he had fought.

ali & garafano

Ali puts a hold on Michael Garafano, the son of state police dispatcher Katherine Shure during his visit to the Rockingham barracks

According to Collins, Ali suggested that they take a photo of the him pretending to land a punch on the champion’s jaw while trooper Glenn Cutting pretended to hold him. All this took place as Ali’s two large bodyguards stood by watching. “He designed that pose,” said Cutting. “He told me, ‘You hold my arms’ and then he told Bob to act like he was throwing a right – he just liked hamming it up.”

After that, Collins says, Ali spent a long time watching deer graze in a meadow behind the barracks and marveling at the fall colors. Ali also met dispatcher Katherine Shure and her son Michael and had photos taken. “He had time for everybody,” said Collins, even troop Cmdr. Roger Patrick who was not on duty on a Sunday.  On a blackboard in the training room Ali wrote:


“To Lt. Patrick from Mohammad Ali.
I was here. Hope to see you the next time I come through.
Oct. 2 – 19 – 77
P.S. If you are wise, you’ll keep this writing here FOREVER.”*


“It was Sunday night and we didn’t have a supervisor,” said Cutting. “I can tell you not much got done that night.”

“He asked me where I lived,” said Collins, “I told him Chester and he asked if he could visit. Next thing you know, he’s doing the Ali shuffle in our living room.”

“The house shook,” said Robert“s wife Cindy, a Bellows Falls High School librarian at the time. “I came into the living room from the kitchen and was dumbstruck.”

Bobby and Linda Collins with Ali 2

Muhammad Ali with Bobby and Linda Collins.

Bobby, the Collinses’ 6-year-old son, was watching a football game and looked up to see Ali coming at him saying “I’m here to whomp you” and scooping the boy up.

And then the Collins family, Cutting,  Ali and two bodyguards settled in. Robert called a neighbor – Dan Wilson – and Chester’s police chief Dick Crowson, both fans, and the group spent about an hour talking. Collins remembers that they talked about boxing and ambition and the drive to be the best. In the excitement, no one at the house had the presence of mind to take a photograph until Collins finally snapped one picture of his children, Linda, 9, and Bobby, 6, with the world heavyweight champion.

“I can’t tell anybody down at the school, they won’t believe it,” Cindy Collins remembers saying at the time.

“Oh yes they will,” Ali responded, “you’re going to be famous.”

Ali autograph

Ali’s autograph: “To Trooper Bob Collins from Muhammad Ali Oct 2 – 19 -’77  Peace”

When the work on the bus was done, Collins drove Ali and the bodyguards back to I-91. One of the mechanics who was changing the tire had injured his mouth when his wrench slipped and Ali gave him some money personally. When it was time to go, Ali gave Collins a salute, climbed behind the wheel of the motorcoach and drove off.

Ali was right. The next day the Rockingham Barracks was inundated with phone calls from the press. Even the mechanics who worked on the bus posed for news photos with the shredded tire. But the Collins family has a more personal take. “It’s not just that you met someone like Ali,” says Collins. “But to have him in your home is something special.

*The blackboard was eventually erased.

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  1. Eileen Kipper says:

    Gene and I loved it! What a unique story when so much coverage has been repetitive.
    Well done, brother!

  2. KD Zuppinger says:

    Excellent piece. Thanks for reporting.

  3. Ken Slater says:

    Really enjoyed this piece – thanks for publishing it!

  4. Phil Perlah says:

    Best of all the Ali stories out there!

  5. Heather says:

    What a fun story, thanks!

  6. Bill Reed says:

    Wonderful piece! Thanks, Shawn.