SMU adjunct professor Clay Small has opened new chapters of his career several times, mostly out of a desire to have more than one act in his life.
“If you’re not trying something new, you’re probably going backwards,” said the former pro-soccer prospect turned corporate lawyer, then professor, and, most recently, novelist. “I think that there’s opportunities galore for people my age to … do something that helps others and helps [them].”
After the two-time all-American soccer player from Ohio Wesleyan University was drafted by the Dallas Tornado, team owner Lamar Hunt convinced Small to enroll again in school.
Small graduated from SMU with a law degree in 1974 and went to work on Wall Street. A job with PepsiCo Inc. brought him back to Dallas.
“When we were first in Dallas … we lived on Asbury Avenue in a little rental cottage,” Small said. “We got to know the area of University Park … and when we came back we didn’t look anywhere else. We knew we wanted to be in a community where most of the kids went to the same school.”
During 30 years with PepsiCo, Small served as general counsel for nearly all of the company’s current and former divisions, including Frito-Lay, Pepsi-Cola, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and PepsiCo Wines & Spirits.
That experience and knowledge shows in Small’s teaching, said Kaylee Knowlton, a law student who took his classes in 2016, including one on General Motors.
“Especially in the GM class, he knew a lot of the people that were involved in a bunch of the GM scandals,” she said. “He shared the real-life aspect of what we were learning.”
Small’s experiences also play out in his first book, Heels over Head, which came out earlier this year. The novel, a thriller with legal undertones, is set in Dallas, with scenes at Javier’s and The French Room at the Adolphus Hotel.
“None of it happened, but it’s all true,” Small said.
He recalled a friend telling him, “Any lawyer worth his salt has a book in him somewhere.”
But that veiled hint remained shelved for years until inspiration for a novel came in the form of a friend’s tattoo — it read, “I wear the chains I made in life; I forged them link by link.”
“I think that there’s opportunities galore for people my age to … do something that helps others and helps [them].”
“The protagonist in the book is a businessman who was a CEO and loses his job … [and] gets a job teaching,” Small said. “I saw that I had a unique opportunity, because I was there all the time seeing the difference between the world of capitalism and the world of academia. It’s the friction of those two worlds that makes for interesting discussion and interesting fiction.”
Small’s teaching career has taken him to Amsterdam and Spain, where he taught the Foreign Corruption Act. The dean of the Esade school in Spain, where he taught, made his novel mandatory reading.
“We had a very vigorous discussion on either side about whether the protagonist violated the FCA or not,” Small said. “And if so, when did he do it?”
Small has written throughout his life. His published articles cover the night he spent in Michael Jackson’s room, a butcher in New York, and meeting Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But digging in and cranking out a novel came with a learning curve. It took him four years to write Heels.
“The hard part of this is not necessarily writing this book,” Small said. “You get an editor. That’s when the hard part starts.”
The novel was originally 360 pages.
“My editor ripped out 50 pages, which were some of my very favorite parts, because the arc of the story wasn’t right,” he said. “It’s hard and humbling.”