Young Clay was an original, sui generis, a salad of improvisations—unpredictable, witty, mischievous, comical. An indifferent student, he lived within his own world during class, daydreaming by the hour. "Most of the time, when he wasn't paying attention, which was often, he'd be drawing," recalls his senior English teacher, Thelma Lauderdale. "But he never gave me any trouble. Shy and quiet in my class. Meditative."
She never met the other Clay. Beyond her doors, flitting here and over there, he was forever a cutup. "He was a jolly-go-happy guy," says Jimmy Ellis, a boyhood friend who also went on to become heavyweight champion of the world.
"He was just a playful person," says Indra Leavell Brown, a friend of Clay's since childhood. "He had a lot of friends. We'd eat in the cafeteria, and he'd come in and crack his jokes and say little silly things and have all the table laughing."
"He always used to tell me he was in love with me," says Dorothy McIntyre Kennedy, who knew Clay from the time he was 12. "But he always made a joke out of everything. I never took him seriously. It was like he never wanted to grow up. He always wanted to be this person—the class clown."
Clay was different, all right, as elusive as the butterfly he would soon proclaim himself to be, inventing and reinventing himself as he went along. He dated Mildred Davis for a spell his senior year, and she remembers the Monday after he won the Golden Gloves championship in Chicago, when he showed up at school bearing in his hands, like an offering, a golden pendant. "A little gold glove, with a diamond embedded in it, on a gold chain," says Davis. "And he put it around my neck and said, 'I don't ever want you to take this off. I want you to wear this all the time.' And I said, 'Fine.' That was about 8:30 in the morning. At about 11, he came back and said, 'Someone else wants to wear it.' So he took it off and let someone else have it the rest of the day. And the next day, some other girl wore it. I never questioned him about it because he was always so silly. So silly. He wanted me to wear it forever, and I had it for about two-and-a-half hours."
Every day with Clay was an adventure, and Davis never quite knew what to expect from him. She hardly knew what to make of the bottle he was sipping from all the time. "He carried a bottle of water with fresh garlic in it," says Davis. "He would drink it, and he reeked of garlic. I remember asking him why he put the garlic in the water, and he said, 'I do that to keep my blood pressure down.' And he would do some of the craziest things with his eyes. He would come up to guys, make his eyes big, press his lips together and say, 'I'm gonna knock you out!' He always carried his money all folded up in a small change purse, like a little old lady. If you met him, there were things about him that you could never forget. Even in high school, he would always say, 'I'm not gonna let anyone hit me, as pretty as my face is. I'm almost as pretty as you.' He did have beautiful skin. And I'll never forget the night he said to me, 'Come on, I'll run you home.' "
That was the night of the variety show at Central High, a takeoff on The Jackie Gleason Show on television. "The girls would come out to announce the acts, and I was the last one, and I'd say, 'And away we go!' "says Davis. "Cassius was on the show that night. He was shadowboxing, as usual. That was his act. After the show he said, 'Come on, I'll run you home.' And I was thinking, He doesn't drive. How is he going to run me home?"
They left the school and started walking west on Chestnut. Pretty soon Clay began to jog in place next to her as she felt her way along the sidewalk in her high heels. "It was dark," says Davis. "He would run up ahead a block or two and jog back. He trotted beside me most of the way. That's what he meant by running mc home. So I walked 13 blocks in my high heels. How crazy he was."
Davis and Clay took long walks together around Chickasaw Park that spring, watched television at the Clay house on Grand Avenue, sat together at her mother's dinner table over meat loaf and corn bread and cabbage. He was, at all times, unfailingly polite. "Would you like something to eat?" Mildred's mother, Mary, would ask. "Yes, ma'am," Cassius would say. Indeed, there was something old-fashioned about the way he viewed things.
"You know," he once told Mildred, "when we get married, you'll have to wear longer skirts."