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Bill Mays soared in business and saved the Recorder

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Bill Mays, whose philanthropic and business footprints stretched all over Indianapolis, prioritized the advancement and preservation of the city’s African American community. His two most celebrated accomplishments: starting what became one of the nation’s largest minority-owned businesses in Mays Chemical Company, and buying the Recorder. Mays died in 2014 at 69 years old.

Founded in 1980 as a one-man operation, Mays Chemical in 2018 was the 42nd-largest minority-owned business in the country, and the largest in Indiana, according to Black Enterprise. Mays Chemical provides chemicals to manufacturers in the auto, pharmaceutical, food and beverage industries. Mays retired from executive leadership in 2011, after having invested his time and money into more than 100 companies and donating millions to philanthropic causes.

Bill West, who worked closely with Mays at the company, recalled the late legendary media personality Amos Brown asking sometime in the late 1980s how many organizations Mays Chemical supported. West guessed it was around 40 or 50, but he went back to the previous year’s ledger and found out it was actually 160.

“That wasn’t even a busy year,” West said. “That was a normal year.”

Mays required those at his company be involved in the community, whether that was serving on boards of directors or volunteering a weekend afternoon for a community event. West said Mays would sometimes walk into people’s offices to tell them he’d just gotten back from a meeting and volunteered them for something he didn’t personally have time for.

That Mays turned himself into such a success wasn’t surprising to those who knew him before the days of Mays Chemical, including college roommate and lifelong friend Edwin Marshall.

“One of the driving statements he made that I still follow today is that it’s always about access,” Marshall remembered. “You don’t have to take advantage of everything that comes your way, but you want to be prepared for the opportunities that arise.”

Mays and Marshall were in the same fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, at Indiana University in Bloomington, and lived in an apartment together their last couple years of college. They were opposites in some ways — Marshall said he hated to clean, while Bill seemed to love it — but went on to godfather each other’s children.

When Mays bought the Recorder in 1990, the newspaper was in danger of going out of business. Mays was a well-established figure in the community by that point and was approached regularly with different opportunities. But as West remembered, the Recorder was special to Mays, and he wanted to see the paper get to its 100th anniversary in 1995.

“That was important for him,” West said. “He wanted to see that. He wanted to make sure that happened.”

The Recorder not only survived, but it grew. Readership went from about 10,000 when he purchased the newspaper to where it is today at around 100,000. When Mays died, former Recorder President Shannon Williams expressed the company’s gratitude to its savior.

“I am grateful he had the insight and passion to purchase the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper at a time when it was at its most vulnerable,” Williams said at the time in a statement. “His efforts helped to preserve the history of African-Americans in Indiana.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or tylerf@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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