Story and Images by Carrie Beth Wallace
My morning with Donald L. Jordan was one I'll never forget. Though interviews are a regular part of my work, this one was different from the very beginning. I knew it immediately. Intuition speaks, and when it does? As a writer, I've learned listen.
"I want you to meet my friend DL," my colleague said. "He's the most incredible man. He's had a very interesting life, but no one really knows much about him. He's humble and quiet, a writer, and the person who established the Jordan Literary Prize at CSU. Would you like to have coffee with us? I think you'd love him, and I think your audience needs to hear what he's got to say."
That's all there was to it for me.
Who was this man? I had to know. And what did he have to say?
A few weeks later, I found myself in the middle of one of the most compelling conversations I've had in my life. So much so that I struggled to find the words to place here.
DL Jordan is a man who needs no introduction, but with a cup of coffee in hand, proved to me quickly that my colleague was right about him. Jordan is a man with an incredible story, and yes, something profound to say.
I'll be grateful for the following conversation for years to come. Not because I had the privilege of sharing it - because I had the gift of being the one to hear it first.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You started a business in your teens. What was that like?
A: My dad had intestinal cancer, so at 16, I had to leave Columbus High to become the breadwinner for a family of four people in the hardware store business. I began running the hardware store, but it was just a dead loss. It was very hard to make money, mainly because it was in a really bad location.
I began by putting up chain link fences, which was a really difficult job because I was working outside year round. It was pretty hard, and I saw the need to do other things. I began repairing roofs and doing paint jobs. Then, I worked my way up to adding on a room for people here and there.
I taught myself how to do everything. For a while, I was content with small jobs. Then, I began to want to bid on bigger remodeling jobs. I actually charmed a banker and a bonding company into backing me. You have to have banking capability to get backed, but I had zero charge credit and collateral. They were kind enough to back me anyway. So, slowly I began to bid on small jobs and take them on as I could.
Q: Did things pick up quickly for you at that point?
A: Not exactly. As a rule, I really didn't make any money for the first few years. I just stayed alive and took care of mom and dad, and my little sister. Above that, I kept investing in the business to grow it as much as I could with what I had.
Q: How did you do that at such a young age?
A: I had to. Being self taught was the most difficult part, but I had to learn it all. I have never been taught anything. Never had a mentor. Think about it.
Q: That's incredible.
The big jump was when I decided I could get into developing. I started traveling up to Atlanta to the Dodge Room. It was a place you could purchase sets of building plans. I went and purchased some, and taught myself how to read them. I didn't understand what they meant at all at first. It looked like Greek to me, but I began studying these big construction plans and trying to figure out what they were talking about. Eventually, I learned how to read them well enough to build.
Q: This is an amazing story. How did you scale your business?
A: Once I had some contracts, I began to bid on jobs and started hiring people. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I probably had 50 people working for me. The business grew from there. I had some debt of my father's to pay off initially, so it took me awhile, but eventually I began to make a profit.
Q: And you did this all by yourself? How?
A: I don't know. I was too busy working. But now, I look back and I realize it was pretty spectacular because construction repair is incredibly difficult.
Q: I can't imagine. When did you know you were going to make it?
A: By the time I was 32, I had enough that I was able to take care of my parents and sister pretty much for the rest of their lives. I continued to work and develop the business from there. I became a builder, an investor, and a landlord.
Q: What made you make those transitions?
I realized if I was making a profit, I could sure enough stop building at that time under bids and contracts for others. So, I kept on developing land and putting buildings up. By doing that, in the next 15 years, I was able to accumulate income-producing property. I own quite a bit of property now, and doing that made an incredible difference for my business.
Q: Were there many people building and investing in real estate in Columbus at the time?
A: I was really one of the two or three that did that back then. It's just been in the last 20 years that we have seen so many people who have gotten into investment building locally. Back then, it was just a few of us doing investment building. So, I was getting a lot of opportunity to build because there was such a need for it and so few of us in the business.
For example, I was the first landlord for Federal Express when they opened up here. I had to borrow money to to do those buildings, but I paid them off fairly quickly, and they continue to produce income to this day. This is how I accumulated the money to establish my endowment for the Creative Writing Department at Columbus State University. I'm a writer, and establishing that endowment was very important to me.
Q: How incredible. Clearly, you're very driven and so much of that has influenced your success. How do you feel that your business background, which is remarkably self-taught, has impacted you as a writer?
A: I was actually asked that question on a radio interview a few years back while promoting one of my books. I bemoaned the fact that if I hadn't had a hundred-hour work weeks trying to make a living, that I probably could have been a great writer as I had planned to be. I mean, think about it. I could have put all that energy into learning how to write.
But the interviewer made an incredible point. He said, "Well, yeah, but if you hadn't had that background in business, would you still be the same man as you are now?"
And of course, I wouldn't have been because we are shaped by our experiences even though we can't always see it at the time. I think we can escape our past, and we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps to seize opportunity. I certainly believe that. But, we are also definitely shaped by our experiences. So, I have to admit that my past has shaped me as a writer, but how beneficial it's been? I'll never know.
My circle has been relatively small, but I think my outlook on life and my life's purpose have been pretty seriously affected by going from poor to not so poor. That has made a difference in the way I see life. I know that I'd rather be rich than poor, but also know that being rich will not buy health. It won't buy love. It won't buy friendship. It won't buy the sky and Earth and those are the precious gifts that we all have. We just simply do not love them and appreciate them enough. We should though. They do not cost us anything except the use of our senses. But we don't we don't get it, do we? That's another discussion for another time.
Q: What is your life's purpose, Mr. Jordan?
To make the world a little better than I found it.
My first decision when I felt that I had to write, was to glorify God and edify his Creation and that's never changed for me. That's the objective.
I think the main thing we should strive to accomplish is to help others. You know? Everyone can plant a tree. Everyone can visit the poor. You can take a flower to somebody, you can buy a loaf of bread to relieve someone's hunger. All it takes is just a simple wish to help somebody. It's not about the amount of money it takes to help, it's about the act of helping. And we should all do it, however we can afford to do so.
Q: I love that. That's wonderful wisdom, Mr. Jordan. Thank you. I can't wait to share that with our audience. People need to hear this - especially now.
When you decided to establish your endowment, how did you arrive at the conclusion to do so? Obviously, you're a writer and a very successful businessman, but what made you choose to establish your endowment at CSU?
That's a great question. When I was just a teenager struggling, I decided I had to work for the ability to help someone else when I was older. That's a divine calling, I believe.
At 16, I was under such stress. I knew I had to work to provide, but I also knew I needed to finish school. So I did. I went to the original Columbus College, now known as Columbus State University.
I finished my degree, but it was a very stressful process. I was working a hundred hours a week, and then when I had any time at all, I was sitting in a cold storage room at home typing. No one even knew who I was really, because I was never around social settings. I had no time for dating from about age 16 to 21, really.
Q: You wanted to date, but you just didn't have the time?
A: Sure. Well, not only that. I just knew that to actually develop meaningful relationships, I needed to devote more time than I had. I just couldn't give someone what they'd have needed and deserved. Not in that season of my life.
Q: I see.
So anyway, I had such a need for help and consolation in my youth. I told myself at a very young age that if I ever could, I'd find a way to do something to help young people. That's what drove me to establish my endowment.
Q: That's beautiful, Mr. Jordan. Truly. And what made you decide to establish your endowment for Creative Writing, in particular?
A: Most people today write on about a six-year-old intellectual level, and those of us who don't, can't get things published. This is because the publishers go for what makes the most money for them. Unfortunately, the easier things are to read, the better they sell these days.
I decided that the best thing I could do with my money would be to encourage good writing. Good writing, from young people, that were willing to do the work, and could use the help to get started.
Books by Donald Jordan.
Q: Incredible. What type of writing are you hoping to encourage?
A: I want to foster writers who uphold the values that that I believe in. When I started looking for a way to make an investment, I was significantly impressed with CSU. I asked a lot of questions and was so amazed by the University's faculty and students. So ultimately, I decided to establish my endowment there.
The first question I wanted to know though was, "Can you really take this money and do the prize within my parameters?"
Q: That's an interesting question. I'm curious now. What are the parameters?
A: My requirement, is that the book that wins the annual Jordan Prize has to be a book that enhances our supports the values of one of these five things or more: responsibility, gratitude, generosity, love, and faith.
Q: I'd imagine that makes your prize unique, doesn't it?
A: It does. There are other things that make it different too though. For example, the fact that we take manuscripts. Non-professional, professional, as long as it's never been published before. It has to be an unpublished work. That's an unusual thing about it. Most prizes only deal with published works.
Q: What else makes it different?
A: The prize amount. $10,000 dollars makes it one of the largest prizes in the nation. Most of them are much smaller. It is a large prize, yes, but not only that, we also guarantee publication. That's another unusual element to it as well.
Q: Why haven't I heard more about this before now? This is a big deal, Mr. Jordan.
A: Sadly, so far not many people in this town have shown interest in it. Now, you're here and I'm excited. I'm thrilled to talk about it, because I think it's important people know it's here to help them get a start. Hopefully, some others will follow up as well.
Q: I sure hope so. There's going to be an annual conference, too. Isn't there? I believe you had to reschedule a writer's conference due to COVID-19. Correct?
A: Yes, sadly we had to postpone it. We're excited for it to happen next year, and I look forward to seeing all the different writers it brings to our city. Imagine the impact that could have longterm for our students.
Q: Mr. Jordan, what else would you like for our audience to know? You told me before we began that you're a bit of a mystery man in town. Not a lot of people know much about you. I admire and respect that very much. But, if there's one thing you could tell people about you, what would it be? What would you like for future students at CSU to know about you?
A: I think that it would be that I'm a missions man. I've always tried to help others whenever possible. I'm not ego-driven at all. And yet, the only way to justify my hundred years of trying to write is to get my name out there. I want people to know DL Jordan not just as a builder, but to remember Donald Jordan the writer.
My hope is that long after I'm gone, perhaps a Pulitzer writer shows up through the Jordan Endowment at CSU. Maybe they'll find their way because there's a place that's been made for them. To become what they're meant to be. Maybe they haven't even been born yet. Maybe they're down the street. Who knows?◼︎