Almost-native son James Autry ought to be known better in Mississippi. He’s “almost-native” because while he grew up in Benton County, he was actually born in Memphis. I suppose that means Tennessee can claim him, too.
What makes his life’s story unusual is he has blended his gentle nature into success at the highest level of big business.
That’s not supposed to happen, is it? We just don’t expect to find sensitive and self-effacing personalities in Fortune 500 corporate boardrooms, and certainly not seated in the chairman’s chair.
But that’s the Autry story. Business mogul and poet, and in retirement for several years, management consultant.
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To say Benton County is rural is about right. Autry was born in 1933 and even today the county of his youth has fewer than 10,000 residents. Much of his early poetry, published as “Nights Under a Tin Roof” in 1983, reflects the ideals of country life — everybody knowing everybody, everybody (for the most part) being supportive of each other.
But the pain is not glossed over. Autry’s life, like most of ours, has had peaks and valleys. Death of his mother, death of his father, failed marriage, uncertainty about life in general. The challenges and joys of raising an autistic son.
In “Grave Digger,” he shares his memory of Otis Cox, who prepared cemeteries for new arrivals. “The red clay holds like concrete, still he makes it give up a place for rich caskets and poor.” Otis shares that “machine digging don’t seem right if you know the dead person.” The grave Otis is shoveling in the poem is for “Miz Ruth” and his simple yet elegant eulogy for the woman: She “always gimme a dipper of water.”
Objectively, there’s no difference between a hand-dug grave and a machine-dug grave. Spiritually, there is. Small courtesies form the tapestry of life, and of death.
Autry’s second collection of poems was titled, “Life After Mississippi.” His actual life after Mississippi has been in Iowa where he rose to the presidency of Meredith Corp. based in Des Moines. The company published major magazines, practically inventing the “how-to” format. Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies Home Journal were the anchors, expanded to Family Circle, Eating Well and many others.
To succeed in the magazine business starts with creating a relevant, quality product that people want to read and will buy. That’s the easy part. The rest includes intensely competing for advertising dollars and navigating mazes of printing, mailing and distribution issues.
Meredith prospered during Autry’s tenure, and it continues to be regarded by current and former employees as a good place to work because, many have written, they sensed their work was valued.
This reality — respecting that people take personal pride in and derive their sense of self-worth by what they create with their minds and hearts (and shovels) — is a major theme for Autry. He fashioned nourishing workplaces long before Google or Facebook or any of today’s companies fashioned their open and airy, laid-back office buildings. Putting people in smaller boxes (offices) inside of larger boxes (square buildings) has never been conducive to productivity.
In two poems, Autry emphasizes how we shape our identity around our work. “On Firing A Salesman” references the young replacing the careerist, calling it “A murder with no funeral, nothing but those quick steps outside the door.” In “Downsizing,” he relates a late-night phone call from someone who has just received the news. “… something like rejection, but even more than that, as if a whole life of work has been without worth …”
If a single headline were to summarize James Autry’s message it would be, “Value your colleagues, and they will value you.”
His career hasn’t been in a vacuum. There’s no such thing as success in business without making hard and sometimes hurtful decisions. His work reflects that he certainly understands discipline and awareness that people often tend to act against their own best interests.
The secret, though, is to understand that every person — whether mopping the floor, flipping burgers or pioneering a new advanced technology — is rewarded by the appreciation of others. A foundational respect of our mutual humanity doesn’t mean an enterprise is soft, unfocused or directionless.
James Autry has been demonstrating this in his career, in his poetry and his consulting for quite a while. Harvard Business School is a fine institution, no doubt. Autry’s education started under a tin roof in Mississippi. His “tactics” were equally successful, if not more, in the world of big business.
People need to know that.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.