Birney Imes: Wil Colom wants to help save the world

August 29, 2010 2:52:00 AM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Sometimes the answer comes before the question is fully formed. Just ask Wil Colom. Eight years ago, the lawyer/businessman/entrepreneur happened to be standing on the Serengeti Plain in northern Tanzania in the presence of a Maasai warrior when he heard music. 


The Maasai are semi-nomadic people who have stubbornly clung to their ancient ways that include body modification and hunting lions with spears. They are a tall, slender, strikingly handsome people; the men are often photographed wearing brilliant red robes. 


Colom watched in amazement as the warrior reached inside his robe and pulled out a ringing cell phone. The man said he charged his phone with a solar charger and the tower was powered by a gas generator. 


"There was a time in the third world when a phone call was a major event," said Colom, "(and here was someone) who could call anybody in the world from the most remote place in the world, a wildlife preserve." 


There are so many stories to tell about Wil Colom, one hardly knows where to start. 




Advice from a banker 


There''s the one he tells about asking John Henry, president of Merchants and Farmers Bank, for a loan to start his law practice. The year was 1977, and Colom, then 27, a veteran of the civil rights movement and freshly graduated from Antioch Law School, had been directed to Columbus. Optimism about the soon-to-be-completed Tenn-Tom Waterway was the draw. ("Columbus is supposed to be a big city by now," Colom says laughing.) 


Henry, though a scion of the South, was not your typical small-town banker. After a distinguished career in journalism that included a stint as an overseas war correspondent during World War II, he had returned to his hometown to run a local bank. 


Henry gave Colom a loan and with it blunt advice. 


"Don''t go and be a colored lawyer on Catfish Alley," Henry told Colom. "There''s no future in that." 


And though some in the local legal community have criticized Colom for being an opportunist who has cashed in on his ethnicity when it has been advantageous to do so, appearances suggest he took Henry''s words to heart. Colom owns and houses his practice in Columbus'' tallest office building, lives in an antebellum house and owns a bed and breakfast situated in another antebellum home. 


Colom says the civil rights movement was over by the end of the 70s. 


"It was time to declare victory and go on and do something else," he says. 


"I get in trouble saying this around some people," he says, "but a lot of stuff I''ve heard (since the late 70s) didn''t ring true." 


"''Black people must stick together.'' Why?" 


"''We need to develop enterprise within the back community.'' Why?" 


"Let''s just do business with anybody," he says. 


Colom has taken his own advice to heart. 




Anti-establishment lawyer 


For the first 10 years of his legal career, Colom made a name for himself as a fearless anti-establishment lawyer. He represented striking workers against Johnston-Tombigbee Furniture, got people released from jail who were illegally being held for nonpayment of fines and, most notably, argued the Joe Hogan case before the Supreme Court in 1981. 


Hogan was the male nursing student who challenged Mississippi University for Women''s female-only admissions policy. That case pitted Colom against Hunter Gholson, a partner in one of the town''s blue chip law firms and its most eloquent jurist. 


Colom won. While the acclaim was sweet, the spoils were meager. 


He took corrective action: He declared himself a Republican and in 1987 ran for state treasurer. 


"I got the stew beat out of me," he says. 


As a Republican Colom got to know Kirk Fordice, who he supported when the Vicksburg contractor made his 1991 gubernatorial run. 


After his victory Fordice asked Colom, who occupied the opposite end of the political spectrum, why he had supported him. 


"You were the devil I knew," Colom replied. 


In appreciation Fordice arranged for Colom to handle the state''s housing bond business. Billions of dollars of bond issues, says Colom. 


In the late 90s, after 10 lucrative years as a corporate lawyer, Colom made another course correction. Citing the book, "Who moved my cheese?" as justification and inspiration, he shifted his practice, taking on more plaintiff work. During that period he represented Maranatha Church in a class-action lawsuit against Kerr-McGee. That episode featured a cameo appearance by celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran. 




Varied interests 


Law was not Colom''s only interest during these and the subsequent years. In fact, looking at all he''s dabbled with, you wonder when he had time for law. He started Genesis Press, a publishing company specializing in black romance novels; traveled widely in and developed a fascination with Africa; played a prominent role as a fundraiser in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and, most recently through his son, Andrew, has become interested in film making. 


As a member Obama''s national finance committee, Colom was part of an astonishing $850 million campaign fund-raising effort. Candidate Obama''s choice of Columbus as a campaign stop wasn''t accidental. 


But his hope for Obama has faded. 


"He''s what we''ve always had," says Colom, who argues that we''ve not had a good president in his lifetime (Colom turned 60 this year.).  


"I think his (Obama''s) heart is in the right place," says Colom, who thinks the president is too much under the influence of Washington insiders. 


"I believe in capitalism. I don''t believe in the crony capitalism we have here in the U.S. I think we should have let those banks collapse. They are as bad for the country as Communism was for Russia." 


Colom says the unfettered capitalism he advocates will be the salvation of Tanzania, an east African republic south of Kenya, where he has business interests. 


There a government official told Colom that Chinese capitalists have done more for the welfare of that country''s poor than all the missionaries and aid agencies combined. 


Colom has found an unlikely business partner in a Republican Mormon trial lawyer in Utah. The two of them have collaborated to provide Tanzania with breast cancer screening machines and they''ve brought doctors from Africa to the States for training. 


Other than food, Colom says the people in third-world countries have three pressing needs: clean water, sewage treatment and adequate housing. 


Colom and his partner have purchased 200 building sites where, using a lightweight concrete panel produced in Utah, they hope to build houses that are efficient, durable and can be assembled in three to four days. The first homes will be shipped out in two to three weeks, he says. 


"People are going to build and own these houses," he says. 


Colom emphasizes that this is a for-profit venture. 


"In 1960 per capita domestic product of Zambia was higher than the China''s," he says. "We''ve put a trillion dollars of aid in Africa, and it (domestic output) has gone down while China has soared. 


"It''s not sustainable if it''s not profitable," Colom says about his housing venture. 


"I think we can do for housing what we''ve done with cellular phones," he adds.

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.