Class Acts

The Very First Owen Graduate

From the Spring 2015 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Alston in 1971

Edward D. Alston Jr., MM’71, says he was simply lucky that his last name begins with A.

On a warm June day in 1971, Alston walked across the dais at Commencement, shook Alexander Heard’s hand and became the first person to earn a degree from Vanderbilt’s new Graduate School of Management.

Before Alston joined the first class of students enrolled in the Graduate School of Management, he was in Vietnam being shelled during the Tet Offensive. Back in the States, the Air Force officer directed Tennessee State University’s ROTC unit and enrolled in Vanderbilt’s new graduate school to focus on finance. He and Perry Wallace, BE’70, the first African American to play basketball in the SEC, became friends. For a year, Alston taught on one campus and took classes on another.

After graduation, Alston worked in Washington on the Ford Foundation-sponsored Minority Contractors’ Assistance Project. Two years later, he purchased a heating and air conditioning company in Atlanta. His success there made the pages of Ebony magazine and generated an offer from a major Chicago mechanical firm to work with them as a minority contractor. That connection led to Alston becoming a union mechanical contractor and working on numerous projects including Atlanta’s MARTA system and a new brewery for Schlitz Beer.

When construction was in a downturn, Alston turned the contracting business over to a partner and moved into an executive position with AT&T. When he left AT&T, he became a telecommunications consultant just at the time Bell was breaking up and new telecommunications companies were forming. One of his first clients was MCI, now part of Verizon.

After running his own consultancy, Alston retired, but a trip to the Caribbean for a friend’s wedding led to a job offer. He and his wife, Sheila, moved to St. Croix and Alston helped a lottery company owned in part by BET founder Bob Johnson and lawyer Johnnie Cochran tackle lottery infrastructure issues in the islands. “It was probably one of the most interesting decisions I’ve made,” Alston says. “It was a great three to four years of running a lottery and being the senior vice president of technology.”

Today, the very first Owen graduate has again retired, lives in Los Angeles, plays golf (after reaching the top levels of senior tennis), enjoys stock and options trading, travels with his wife and spends time with his three children and eight grandchildren. He is also a certified financial education instructor who works to increase financial literacy among young people.

“In all segments of society, financial illiteracy is like an epidemic, but minorities are typically educationally underserved—we don’t have enough minorities in the financial industry,” Alston says. “My finance education at OGSM helped give me a different perspective on the world.”

Ed Alston with Dean Johnson
Ed Alston with Dean Johnson