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Opening Pandora’s Box

Not all Graceland experiences look the same — that was especially true for former Graceland student BILLY J. “BJ” STRAWTER ’97. Now owner and publisher of renowned Detroit-based magazine Black Life, Arts, and Culture (BLAC), Strawter came to Graceland as a young football player from Midland, Michigan.

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April 27, 2022 | Georgia Seagraves

As a new student 700 miles from home, some of his biggest challenges were navigating life in rural Iowa and transitioning to the college experience. Even though Strawter did not graduate from Graceland, he still remembers the connections he made during his time in Lamoni.

Going to college isn’t always easy. Strawter notes, “The hardest part for me was being so far from home. There is a lot to navigate, but the people on my house made me feel really welcomed.” Specifically, Strawter recalls his house president Mike Seagraves ’94 for his willingness to welcome him on the hall; Frank Brown ’96, who taught him how to play guitar (and one of the reasons why he plays guitar to this day), and the Darby twins (Dana Darby ’95 Tapp and Darlene Darby ’95 Davis) were also an important part of his Graceland community.

BLAC’s November/December 2021 issue features stories dedicated to the legacy and impact of the arts. Strawter’s “Leap of Faith” publisher’s note kicked off the issue. Visit the digital magazine here: blacmagazine.com

As a student, Strawter got a taste of entrepreneurship when he opened a dance club in town called Pandora’s Box. While opening the club did not release a host of evils unto the world as the Greek myth suggests, it did provide an excellent opportunity for him to develop his entrepreneurial experience. “It was a great lesson in how to manage money, advertising, marketing and partnerships,” said Strawter. From the importance of accounting to working his first serving job at Pizza Hut to gaining an appreciation for diversity of background and thought, BJ learned a lot from being at Graceland. So when the time came to launch into the working world, he was more than ready.

Strawter was first introduced to BLAC magazine as a client of his advertising agency, MILO. Both groups worked together to help BLAC transition into digital media. Through this process a relationship was built, and the magazine asked Strawter if he would be interested in investing. He believed in the mission and vision of the brand and when BLAC was looking to sell, he bought their publication, hoping to take it to the next level. He has since expanded the multimedia company that publishes BLAC to include local city websites in Atlanta, Chicago, Memphis and Detroit.

As a Graceland alum, BJ Strawter still carries lessons that he learned during his time on “the Hill.” His advice to current students: “Don’t give up.”

In BLAC’s November/December 2021 issue, Strawter penned a powerful publisher’s note, in which he states, “If anything, the last year has reinforced my belief that life is a roller coaster. That ups and downs are part of the journey but that stomach-in-your-throat feeling on the drop doesn’t last. The trepidation felt at the beginning of a dip is valid, but in the end it’s all going to be okay.”

As a Graceland alum, Strawter still carries lessons that he learned during his time on “the Hill” and hopes to connect with Graceland’s Black Student Union (BSU) and other clubs in the future. His advice to current students echoes his own Graceland Experience: “Don’t give up. Just know that in any given moment you’re going to find yourself in a difficult situation and feel overwhelmed, and there are people there at Graceland who you don’t even know who are looking out for you.”

Writer’s Note:

While interviewing BJ, I asked him if there were any Graceland students that stood out to him and — without knowing who I was, he described his house president who was really kind to him. BJ couldn’t remember his first name but knew that his last name was something like “Seagraves.” I gasped in shock as I realized that the man BJ was referring to was my dad, Mike Seagraves. More than 25 years later, Graceland connections continue to appear in the most surprising places – a true testament to the Power of Together.

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