Delta native reflects, critiques and challenges in new book
by Jack Criss
Clarksdale native and first time author, William Alias, Jr., recalls the very first items he ever sold as a young man growing up in the Delta. "Watermelons came first," he says, "and then I moved on to turnip greens." These very simple acts of trade can now be seen, in retrospect, as harbingers of an incredibly successful career in business.
Now making his home in Oxford, MS, Alias published his first book at the beginning of this year. Entitled My America (BookLogix, Atlanta, GA) the book is, at once, an autobiography, a collection of timeless truisms, quotes and wisdom, a history of Alias' immigrant families on both sides, the values they stood for and passed on...and a compelling timeline of events that shaped America herself as a nation.
My America, throughout the 200 page, hardbound volume, also features Alias' thoughts and outlook on topics ranging from equality to race and politics to business. Of particular interest and significance in the book, which is divided into four parts, is the final section entitled "Business, Money and Wealth": it is here where Alias shows just how far he has come in a storied and successful career from selling watermelons and turnips to starting and running some of this nation's most iconic companies and brands. In this section, Part IV, Alias also weaves throughout the text how lessons learned from his Lebanese and Italian family heritages aided him in his quest for success.
"My respective families combined two excellent traits for success in business," Alias says. "The Lebanese people on my father's side were born traders and the Italians on my mother's were extremely hard workers. It's a great combination and I grew up seeing these characteristics in action," noting that his family were and remain his greatest influences.
"I have worked with some brilliant and extremely successful business leaders and entrepreneurs," Alias says, "but, without a doubt, the lessons I learned early on as a child and young man from my family served and guided me well throughout my career."
After leaving the Delta and graduating from Ole Miss, Alias spent a year in Columbus, Georgia, before moving west to Los Angeles where he lived on Manhattan Beach for several years. "When I was there in LA, everybody I knew called me 'Mississippi Bill' because I often wore my Ole Miss t-shirts around town," he laughed. "I was pretty easy to spot."
Alias also spent time living in Oklahoma City (where he started a restaurant chain, building up 40 locations) and in Dallas before deciding, at the age of 29, that he wanted to return to the South. He had a plan to decide specifically where he wished to return.
"I devised a ranking of all the major Southern cities," he says, "using criteria such as growth, image, economy and so forth. I subsequently narrowed my list down to Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville. Then," Alias goes on, "I got a basic Schaffer ink pen, bought some nice stationary and mailed ten handwritten, two paragraph notes to some of the top CEOs in these cities." One of those notes led to a meeting that had a profound impact on Alias' future.
"It's a long story, and I won't mention any name or names, but I met with a very successful and wealthy businessman in his Atlanta office, which was enormous by the way," Alias says. "It was so big and well-appointed that the first thing I did was joke with the gentleman about how well he'd done without me so far!" Alias laughs. That initial meeting led to a 10-year relationship with this particular CEO and his companies, "and we still are very close," he adds.
Alias says that when he started out in the business world and rose through the ranks he always wanted to be around and learn from those who were successful and knowledgeable. "I had already done pretty well in my twenties, mainly on my own," he says, "but I always tried to glean advice and pick up habits and traits from older, well-established business people along the way. I convey this in the business section of My America through stories, quotes and anecdotes."
When asked what prompted him to write My America (and Alias did indeed hand write the book himself only handing his notes to be typed up and formatted) Alias says the idea came to him from a protester at the Republican National Convention held in Cleveland, Ohio in 2016.
"Governor Phil Bryant had made me a delegate to the convention which was a great honor," he says. "My wife of twenty years, Lysa, accompanied me and we got to spend some time with then-candidate, Donald Trump. But as we were entering the convention hall that evening, I happened to notice a protester holding up a sign that read 'America has never been great for minorities'--that stuck with me. Frankly, it ticked me off," he adds. "It was then that I decided to write My America as not only, in part, a story of what I and my parents, who came here in 1906. accomplished, but also as a recitation and recounting of American values, philosophies and core beliefs.
I also have, for whatever reason, a really great memory," Alias continues. "Things just stay with me. I'm the guy who can tell you what Spiro Agnew said in 1968!," he laughs. "So, in the book, I wanted to reprint some of the great quotes of sage wisdom I had heard or come across and always remembered--I think they are worth passing on." In My America, to belie Alias' point, quotes from disparate thinkers such as the Buddha, Booker T. Washington, Vince Lombardi and even the leader of the China Republic Revolution, Dr. Sun Yat-sen are included in the book
Alias says he got the title My America from another great Mississippi son and writer, Willie Morris. "I had read and greatly admired his book My Mississippi," he says, "so I took an obvious cue for the title of my book."
My America, despite its' beautiful layout, design and coffee table book appearance, should not be confused as an "ego piece" or a book for use in the home as a mere piece of furniture. Alias mixes his narrative of family and personal history along with his favorite speeches, quotes and sayings with strong and well-reasoned opinion and criticism of topics such as capitalism and communism, money and wealth, current ills and misconceptions facing his beloved America today, and more, with a talent that is rarely seen in veteran writers, let alone first-time authors.
"The last thing My America can be read as is an 'ego piece,' " Alias says. It's worth noting that the shortest section in the book is, in fact, the one the author wrote about himself. Love of country and the freedoms it has allowed and celebrated--most particularly in business--illuminate the vast majority of My America's pages. With that in mind, does Alias think that the vaunted American Dream is still alive as it was to his immigrant parents and in-laws--and to him?
"I don't know," he answers honestly upon reflection. "There are so many burdensome rules, regulations and red tape out there today in the business world that are just simply unbelievable--hoops to jump through that didn't always exist and they seem to be growing and getting more difficult to abide by. I laugh about it, although it's not a joking matter, but these days it would probably take several years to open an ice cream stand let alone a major new business. Plus, let's face facts: there are some people who might not have the aptitude or drive to make it in a capitalist system. The beauty of capitalism, though, is that success breeds success: those who do, in fact, have the aptitude to make it create opportunities for literally scores of other people."
Interestingly (and rare) enough, Alias initially had 200 copies of My America printed and is giving away his book for free to those who request it. "My intention was not to write a bestseller or make any profit off the book at all," he says."I just wanted to get the many messages in the book out there. I believe the lessons contained within the pages can be valuable to young people and I think the older reader will enjoy the stories I wrote. At least, I hope they do," he laughs. Given the response My America has received since its recent publication, it would appear apparent that readers of all ages are indeed enjoying the book-- and very much so. "I've gotten so many kind and wonderful letters from people all over the country who have relayed to me how much they liked My America," Alias says, "and nothing can be more gratifying to a writer than that."
At 78 years of age (born three days after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941) Alias says he has no plans to slow down or "take it easy" in life. He loves the town of Oxford with a passion and he and Lysa plan to stay there. "I adopted Lysa's three children--all Ole Miss grads with one being a doctor-- and, along with my son, William III, are currently working in Oxford for the foreseeable future."
William Alias, Jr. embodies the admirable traits and values he chronicles in his inspiring and thoughtful work, My America. Surely today, of all possible times, his book deserves the widest audience possible.
As noted, William Alias initially printed 200 copies of My America; for those who wish to receive their own copy Mr. Alias kindly asks that a donation be made to Saint Elizabeth Catholic Church in Clarksdale or the Saint John's Catholic Church in Oxford and he will personally send the donor a signed copy of his book. It costs $50 to reprint each copy but Mr. Alias will send My America to anyone for any amount donated. Please send your donation, along with the name of the particular church you wish to receive it, to William Alias c/o Delta Magazine. P.O. Box 117, Cleveland, MS 38732.