Harvey Sloane ’54 reflects on a lifetime of opportunities that include careers in medicine and politics — and a friendship with Muhammad Ali.
BY JANA F. BROWN
In his remarkable life, Harvey Sloane ’54, pictured above at his desk in Louisville, Kentucky, circa 1973, has leaned into a variety of personal opportunities while creating many more for others. His story includes earning a medical degree from Case Western University; opening a community health center in Louisville, Kentucky, and founding the city’s first EMS service; and serving as the public health commissioner for the District of Columbia under mayor Marion Barry during the HIV/AIDS crisis. It also includes serving two terms as mayor of Louisville; running twice for governor of Kentucky; losing a narrow bid for the U.S. Senate in 1990 to longtime incumbent Mitch McConnell; and serving as a pallbearer at the funeral of his close friend, Muhammad Ali.
In the midst of it all, he also found time to advocate for education for women in Afghanistan and to visit prisoners in Siberia who had been stricken with tuberculosis. Sloane, who has written about his life and times in a memoir called “Riding the Rails: My Unexpected Adventures in Medicine, City Hall, and Public Service,” says it all started in a classroom at St. Paul’s School, where reading “The Grapes of Wrath” inspired a series of hitchhiking travels across the United States the summer after his graduation.
You mentioned that reading “The Grapes of Wrath” as a Sixth Former was a turning point in your life. What was it about that book that got to you?
It’s really about human beings and the basics of life. They took care of one another and they were generous to people. Once they got to California, it wasn’t the land of plenty they imagined; it was hard going. I felt after reading “The Grapes of Wrath” that I didn’t know what was going on in the country, and I had such a precious background. After seeing some of the migrants and their horrible health conditions, I turned toward medicine.
The book inspired you to travel the country. What did those experiences teach you?
That first summer with Sam Sylvester [’54], my mother was totally against us hitchhiking. She said, ‘I’ll give you a bus ticket.’ We went down to New Orleans and there was a classmate, Cocie Rathborne, who had a lumber mill there and we worked there for a while. Then, after freshman year at Yale, I hooked up with David Salisbury [’54] to go to Alberta, Canada. I had a contact up in a place called Peace River, where we could do a construction job on the Alcan Highway. I also worked in Tijuana, Mexico, and with a blacksmith in Rawlins, Wyoming. It really broadened my life.
How did the people you met and the things you saw influence your decisions to go into public health and public service?
First of all, there was a great need out there. My father had been in finance. My mother expected me to go into finance, and I just didn’t see that for myself. I wanted to help people — be a part of their solution and not just make money — and [traveling] reinforced that. Later in life, I did a variety of things, but the health background was always significant, so that’s why I [went into medicine].
What led you to settle in Kentucky?
One of the most important moments in my life was serving two years in the U.S. Public Health Service and being part of President Kennedy’s Appalachian Health Program in Eastern Kentucky. First, because it was two years of public service after my [medical] training — I would recommend every person between the ages of 18 and 30 have a year or two of public service because it benefits each individual and the country. Second, this service introduced me to Kentucky, where I spent 26 years and raised my family.
Your public service has included creating a community health center in Louisville and you also served as the city’s mayor. How did that happen?
I ran the community health center for a couple of years and then I got into air pollution. We had a big problem in Louisville, particularly in the area I was working in because most of the industry was in that southwest part of the community. The existing authority put me on the Air Pollution Control Board. Then someone said, “Why don’t you run for mayor?” I hadn’t thought about it. We had a really grassroots organization, campaigning in neighborhoods. My wife and I went to 250 coffees and met a whole lot of people.
You formed a close bond with Muhammad Ali. How did that friendship evolve?
In 1974, Muhammad Ali, who was from Louisville, won “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire and regained the heavyweight championship. I wired him, “Come back, champion. Greatest of the world.” He came back and we had a great reunion for him and we formed a close friendship. When I became county judge, I married him and his wife [Yolanda] in our home in Louisville. I was also a pallbearer at his funeral. He was an incredible guy.
You ran for governor of Kentucky twice. Tell me about that experience.
I walked 1,000 miles around Kentucky, which was one of the great moments of life. [My wife], Kathy, joined me and my two co-chairs were the two most recognized people in the western world: Muhammad Ali and Colonel Sanders. In the last mile, Ali jogged in with me, sparred with the media, and said, “If you don’t vote for this guy, (and then he put his fist in the camera) ‘I’ll just knock you down.” I lost that one just by a couple of votes. There never has been a [Kentucky] mayor who’s won a governorship.
The title of your memoir includes the words “unexpected adventures.” What did you expect from life and how do you think that shifted?
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “It is required of a person to participate in the action and passion of their time or risk being judged not to have lived.” I wanted always to go to the point of the action where I could make a difference. I can’t explain everything, but it was just my nature.