Obituary: John D. Alexander / Muhammad Ali's bodyguard and an 'inspiration'
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John D. Alexander, a man of many trades, will be remembered for his role as protector and defender.
A storyteller from the beginning, Mr. Alexander lived quite the story himself, one that saw him on the front lines of some of the most noteworthy events in the last century.
Mr. Alexander died from natural causes in his sleep on Sunday -- "the way he always wanted to go," said his daughter Ayeshah Bulls. He was 89.
The Beaver Falls native attended Beaver Valley High School in the late 1930s before joining the Army to help his mother provide for his siblings. He fought in World War II for two years and was a member of the 320th Anti-Aircraft Balloon Battalion during the D-Day invasion at Normandy -- the first African-American combat group to go ashore on the French coast.
When he returned to Beaver Falls, Mr. Alexander took a job with Armstrong Cork, a maker of floors, ceilings and cabinets.
His home life, though, was even more admirable.
After a divorce left him with four children -- including one disabled child -- to care for, Mr. Alexander somehow managed to juggle his job and his home responsibilities.
"He always said to me he didn't know how he did it," Mrs. Bulls said. "He worked many, many hours in the factory and so he had help from his sisters and other members of the Beaver Falls community."
In 1956, Mr. Alexander converted to Islam and traveled to Mecca the following year. His conversion sparked another chance encounter with history.
Because of his good standing within the Muslim community in Pittsburgh, Mr. Alexander, who also adopted the name Mujahid Rahim, was selected to be one of Muhammad Ali's personal bodyguards when he traveled through Pennsylvania in the 1960s and '70s.
Mr. Alexander, a jujitsu expert who once considered a boxing career, struck up a friendship with Mr. Ali.
Mrs. Bulls pulled a photo of the two men together from the photo album: It shows Mr. Ali in the foreground while Mr. Alexander -- dressed to the nines, complete with a large red bowtie -- stands stoically behind him.
"He always shared how Muhammad Ali was such a jokester," Mrs. Bulls remembered. "He was always having everyone laugh, and the bodyguard had to remain staunch and couldn't laugh."
Mr. Alexander tarried away from boxing because "his heart said he couldn't hurt another man that way," Mrs. Bulls said, but the two men often debated on that topic and on their shared devotion to Islam and civil rights.
He met his second wife, the mother of Mrs. Bulls, during his late 50s, and lived in Carroll until his death. His passions were simple, his daughter admitted; Mr. Alexander loved reading the Quran, sitting in the sun and meditating.
"Everyone who knew him knows that about him," Mrs. Bulls said.
His impact didn't waver throughout life. Just three months ago, Ryan Wilson moved into the home next door to Mr. Alexander. For Mr. Wilson, the grizzled veteran was inspiration embodied.
"I was doing some yard work outside when I just moved into my house and he called me down and started talking to me," Mr. Wilson said. "He kind of hit me deep, the way he talked and the things he talked about really sunk in deep to me. The man has seen it all. He's a man of inspiration.
"There was never a time I walked outside and saw him on his porch that he wasn't wearing a big smile on his face."
"He's a man that constantly transcended, constantly grew through life," Mrs. Bulls said. "Up until his final days he was thinking about how he could improve himself and humanity. It was constant, it wasn't just phases. His whole life was just committed to giving and serving any way he could."
Mr. Alexander is survived by his three daughters, Mrs. Bulls of Brighton Heights, Barbara Alexander of Beaver Falls and Mary Alexander of Rochester, N.Y.; and two sons, Ronald of Norfolk, Va., and John of Texas; a sister, Mandy Alexander of Cleveland; and three brothers, Harold Dawson, Charles Dawson and Thomas Alexander, all of Beaver Falls.
Friends will be received from 10 a.m. to noon today at the Anthony L. Massafra Funeral Home, 40 Second St. Extension, Donora.
First Published July 18, 2012 12:00 am