How I Got Here – James A. Autry

By James A. Autry as told to Christine Riccelli

‘You Have to Care About One Another’

James A. Autry is a well-known author, poet, musician and consultant who has written 13 books on topics ranging from his Southern boyhood to servant leadership. The 83-year-old former Meredith Corp. executive is married to former Iowa lieutenant governor Sally Pederson. The couple has one son, and Autry also has two sons from a previous marriage. In a conversation condensed by dsm Editor Christine Riccelli, Autry reflects on everything from growing up poor to flying fighter jets to parenting a son with autism. 

Learn How to Get Along

I was born in Memphis, but when I was 6, my mother and father got divorced and my father went back to Mississippi. I remained in Memphis with my mother. My father was a Baptist minister who fell in love with his secretary; they married and raised a second family. But the divorce left my mother destitute, and we moved into a government housing project in a slum, something of a breeding ground for juvenile delinquency. I watched my mother get hit on by men all the time, but she was a good Baptist and kept us in the church. If it hadn’t been for that, I don’t know what would’ve happened to us.

I think I learned some of my negotiating and mediating skills by staying out of fights and gangs. I just learned to get along, and that was very helpful.

I also got an intense sense of the social class distinctions that exist in the country. The housing project was ringed by upper-class suburbs. We got to know the kids in those suburbs, and when friends would invite me to their house, I could tell from their parents’ attitude that I was a persona non grata. I often tell people that as a result of living in a government housing project, I’m a natural liberal.

I went to the University of Mississippi because I got a scholarship to play clarinet. Mississippi was the only university that would let me accept a band scholarship even though I didn’t want to major in music. I wanted to major in journalism. My entire ambition was to be a newspaper man and earn $50 a week.

Understand Interdependence 

After college, I went into the Air Force and flew jet fighters from 1955 to 1959. I had never been out of the South, and the Air Force sent me to France for three years. I took advantage of that opportunity and used every bit of my leave to travel through Europe.

A lot of what I learned in the Air Force I’ve used my entire life. I learned about leadership and about how to work together. I learned that you don’t have to like one another, but you do have to care about one another and what you’re doing together. When you’re on a night mission in weather and flying in formation, your life depends on being able to look at the light on the other pilot’s wing tip and hold onto that. In that kind of situation, nobody says, “Well, I wonder what his politics are.” You have to care about him as he cares about you; there’s interdependence. If that leads to friendship, great, but it doesn’t have to.

Embrace New Challenges

I didn’t want to be a career Air Force officer, so I left the service and moved to Tennessee, where I got a job at a small weekly newspaper in Humboldt. I was there only a few months because a woman I knew who worked at Meredith said there was a job opening to sell books. I met with the company’s head of sales at the Memphis airport and he offered me the job, but I said no. I didn’t want to be a salesman. I wanted to be a journalist. It turned out the sales manager’s friend was the managing editor of Better Homes and Gardens, and that very day, the magazine’s copy editor had resigned. So they hired me as a copy editor. It was the lowest position on staff, but it was great.

I became managing editor in 1962, but after a few years I had an itch to get back to grass-roots journalism. I was offered a job at New Orleans magazine right as it was starting. I learned a lot there about ad sales and circulation because I had to do everything.

About 18 months later, Meredith CEO Bob Burnett came down to New Orleans, and over dinner he told me about Special Interest Publications (SIP), a new division Meredith was starting, and asked me to be the head of editorial. It took me maybe 20 seconds to say yes because I was tired of having to sell advertising and make coffee and buy toilet paper.

I loved the SIP job, but then I was asked to be editor of Better Homes and Gardens. It was the number-one product in the company, but sales and subscriptions were down. We referred to it as the golden millstone. It was a bigger challenge and responsibility than what I was doing, but I accepted the position and we built the magazine back up.

Learn by Listening

In the late 1970s at Meredith, I went from being the editor in chief of books and magazines to the general manager of the magazine group. In other words, I moved from the editorial side to the business side. Usually the path for that position is through the ad side, not editorial. Everybody was polite, but I knew there was resentment because I had never sold advertising at the company.

I had to prove myself because you can’t just come in and act like the expert.

I started by asking a lot of questions, listening carefully and trying to identify where the rough parts were. If you listen to people long enough, you know exactly where the rough parts are. I found that people really want to tell you about their jobs. And what you do is learn how to discern when someone has an agenda.

Give People the Space to Make Mistakes and Grow

Bob Burnett wanted me to start new magazines, so I organized a future magazines committee. I told people, “If you’d like to start a new magazine, join this committee. If you come up with an idea and if we choose that idea, you may be able to stay with it and help create the magazine.” Midwest Living started that way, and the editor became a superstar.

We went from four to 17 magazines in two years. Some of them didn’t make it, but that’s part of the game. It took a good deal of investment to do these magazines, and while there were successful ones, other investments didn’t pay off. I made mistakes, but Burnett always had my back.

People always want to know what my relative position was in the company. Rather than use titles, I tell them I was number three on the list for the Learjet. From that position, the next steps up were to chief operating officer and chief executive officer. Those are jobs I did not want, though I want to make clear that I’m not saying I would’ve gotten them.

Stretch Your Skill Set 

In the 1970s, I was on a business trip in San Francisco and I went to a reading by James Dickey, the great Southern poet who also wrote “Deliverance.” It had a big impact on me; poetry seemed so elegant and efficient. I went back to my hotel and started writing poems. I was going through a hard time personally, and I wrote poems about what I was experiencing.

I also started writing poetry about the South. I struggled with being a white Southerner. It was embarrassing to me. I went to segregated schools and to a segregated university. But there was a lot of life in the South that was rich, too, so I started writing about that. I thought, “I am who I am, and the experiences have made me who I am. I’m going to recall the best of it.” My first two books were born of these poems.

In the mid-1980s at Meredith, I began to sense the emotional aspects of business and the impact on the people. Nobody writes about the emotions of management; everyone writes about the technical and organizational stuff. So I began to write poetry about management and leadership. (Autry wrote “Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership,” a book of essays and poems published in 1991; other books followed, including the best-selling “The Servant Leader” in 2001.)

In 1990, along with my friend Tom Lynner, I co-founded the Des Moines National Poetry Festival, of which I’m very proud. We brought in Nobel laureates and other world-class poets. It ran for 16 years until we ran out of money. It’s unfortunate we can raise money for any kind of sports event, but poetry?

Open Yourself Up to New Experiences

When I retired from Meredith in 1991, I started this other career. I thought I was just going to be an author, but I became an author, a speaker and a consultant. I’ve done servant leadership workshops in Mexico, Canada, Singapore, Australia, Iceland and elsewhere. I also helped develop curricula for a servant leadership academy in the Netherlands.

Then when Sally was in office, I took on more of the household duties and more of the care for our son, Ronald. It was a wonderful period of my life. I went to the track meets and to the teacher conferences and I did the laundry. I got to where I loved taking clothes out of the dryer. I realized how everything can be a rich experience if you open yourself up to what that experience can be.

Practice Optimism

Ronald is now 33. Over the years, we tried to make everything a learning experience for him. He was interested in airplanes, so he had more model airplanes than any kid you may know. And he always wanted to be an airline pilot, so I said to Sally, “Let’s find an instructor who will teach him to fly.” So we did, and Ronald has had 200 hours of flying. He’s been living independently ever since he got back from college. He’s had a job at the county auditor’s office for seven years, has his own place and has a girlfriend. She’s a doll.

Having a son with autism has taught me a lot about patience, but also something I learned from Sally: You just never give up.

You don’t ever say, “Oh, well, this is all it’s going to be.” You learn to develop trust in the capacity of the human brain to grow.

I’ve learned so much from Sally. She is the most upbeat, optimistic person I know. She looks for what’s good in every situation and just doesn’t have bad days. When I wake up, I drag myself around. But she wakes up every morning with such enthusiasm that her eyelashes go swish when she opens her eyes.

Cultivate Gratitude

It got to the point where I didn’t have anything else to write about business, so I started thinking about other matters, including religion. When your father is a minister and runs off with his secretary, it has an impact on two things in your life—religion and sex.

I had always struggled with religion, but I think I’m a fairly spiritual person; when I was a consultant with natural products companies, I became interested in what some people would call new age philosophy. That began to inform my poetry and my essays. I decided to try to write a book about the inner life because I was trying to identify what I felt. Now I would call myself a mystical Christian. (“Looking Around For God” was published in 2007, and five years later, “Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love the Life You Have” was published. That was followed in 2013 by “Choosing Gratitude 365 Days a Year,” which Autry wrote in collaboration with Pederson.)

So here I am at 83. Occasionally I still get approached for speaking engagements and workshops, but not the way I used to. I have Parkinson’s, so I don’t have the endurance I used to and my voice is not always reliable. With that exception, I have no critical health issues. Parkinson’s will probably kill me at some point, but until then, I will speak or consult if asked, will continue to write, and will be grateful for life and just keep on keeping on.

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