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Mountain Home Magazine

The Legend

Feb 09, 2018 01:40PM

You can get the facts about John Rigas from online sources. He was born in 1924 in Wellsville, New York, in an apartment above the locally beloved Texas Hot restaurant, to Greek immigrants James and Eleni Rigas. He had three siblings. He graduated from Wellsville High School, then enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was in an armored infantry division and saw combat on French soil. Post war he returned to Wellsville for a time, then attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he earned a bachelor of science in management engineering. He took a job with Sylvania Electric Products Inc. in Emporium, Pennsylvania. He married Doris Nielsen and they had a nice family—Tim, Mike, James, and Ellen, and, in the ensuing years, several grandchildren. He bought a movie theatre in Coudersport, Pennsylvania (which is, by the way, about halfway between Wellsville and Emporium), and then a cable television franchise. Then he bought more cable franchises and a hockey team. He saw Coudersport thrive as corporate headquarters of one of the country’s largest cable companies, and, then, experienced the unraveling of it all.

He’s ninety-three years old now, and not well. Two years after he was released from prison, having served more than a decade for fraud in one of the great corporate falls in U.S. history, the Adelphi founder is back home in God’s Country.

Those are the facts. But what you can’t get, unless you talk to the man, are the stories.

Driving John Rigas

Peter Ryan understands that those who don’t know John, who may only know of him, may be surprised to learn about his friend’s community-mindedness.

He was a Little League coach. He served on the board of Charles Cole Memorial Hospital for thirty-five years. He was a trustee for Mansfield University and for St. Bonaventure University. He was involved in helping Coudersport build a new high school and in bringing the Pure Carbon Company to the borough. Pete, a retired dentist, has known the Rigas family for forty-plus years, and has spent a bit of his free time during the past couple of those years serving as a driver for the man who put Coudersport on the map. They go to doctors, to Bonny basketball games, dig each other a little about their respective alma maters (Peter graduated from Alfred), and recently discussed the possibility of a fly-fishing trip to Montana. They went one other time, Pete relates, and, though it was John’s first fly-fishing adventure, he thoroughly enjoyed himself.

A good cup of coffee

It’s a frigid day, but toasty in John’s bright office, which is on the top floor of a large building near his home outside of the borough of Coudersport. He has just arrived; his son, Mike, helps him up the stairs. John has on a red cardigan over an Oxford-type shirt. He is wearing a tie. His wide gold wedding band catches the light. His wife, Doris, who died in 2014, was quite involved in planning and designing this building, Peter says, and wanted a lot of light in it. John turns the thermostat up just a little, as his son predicted he might, then he, Mike, Pete, and a visitor settle in with coffee and conversation. When asked if it’s true that he enjoys a good cup of coffee, John acknowledges it is.

“I prefer my coffee in a canteen cup with rust on the bottom,” he says, to chuckles all around, then adds, “I prefer to do business in a restaurant. I like the clatter of dishes.” He says he used to spend a lot of time in restaurants, “but found I was monopolizing the phone.” So, with the owners’ permissions, he had his own phone lines installed.

“I had ’em all over,” he says. The waitresses would bring him “his” phone before they’d bring the coffee, Pete recalls.

John is not a big man, but nevertheless looks quite at home behind his large desk. The office clearly is the working space of a prosperous person, but it is not pretentious (well, the carpeting is delightfully luxurious under sockfeet). There are pictures of John with famous folks—Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, the Pope—and there are pictures of family. One, circa early 1900s, is a serious-looking young woman in black. The black scarf over her head trails down past her fingertips. Eleni is her name, and she would become John’s mother. She was still in Greece when this photo was taken. John explains that his father, having had some success as a businessman in Wellsville, and concerned about looming immigration restrictions imposed on Greece and other Mediterranean countries, decided it was time to marry.

So, John continues, his father contacted family and friends in Greece and, soon after, he found himself meeting a boat and a lady in Boston. The couple took a train back to Wellsville, married a week later, and settled in over the Texas Hot.

“They had a beautiful marriage,” John says of his parents. He and his siblings, of course, benefited from that, and perhaps, by extension, the patrons of Texas Hot did as well, even those who couldn’t buy a meal. John recalls that his father would help the “bums...who came off the train looking for a free meal.” He would give them twenty-five cents worth of food—coffee and a piece of pie, or coffee and a hot dog.

“That’s where you learned some generosity,” notes Pete.

Football, war, and college

As do kids in rural America everywhere, John played football with his neighbors.

“When the big boys tackled me they’d pile on, and it hurt, but I kept on,” he says. He made the high school football team, but acknowledges he was “generally the smallest” guy on it, and in the huddle would often appeal to his teammates: “Don’t give me the ball.”

“But every once in a while there was an opening in that line and you’d have to decide,” John reflects. “In life you’ve gotta take the ball. You might fumble, but in life there comes the opening and you have to decide if you’re going to take it or not.”

When World War II came, John and the young men he had grown up with in Wellsville all wanted to serve. He had a bad knee, thanks to some of those football games, and worried that he wouldn’t pass the physical.

“Nobody wanted to fail the exam,” he says. But there was no fumble there. He found himself in an armored infantry division, and saw combat in France.

“We had a job to do and just went about it. It was a feeling of one nation all united, one purpose. It was one of the most import ant experiences—I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through a war, but it was a great privilege to serve. When I went to the Normandy beaches and saw crosses and Stars of David, I can’t help but think why I was spared and him not. I also think about how young those boys were. That has always remained with me. I can never betray what they fought for or what they believed in. I am also proud to say I received a Combat Infantryman Badge, the only badge that really meant something to me.”

Pete, the dentist, lightens the momentarily somber moment by sharing a story from his own military service.

“I was on the drill team,” he says.

John’s next play was college. Education was important in his family, he says, “but my parents didn’t know one university or college from another.” So he followed a group of childhood friends who had headed north to Troy, New York, and RPI.

“For me, I couldn’t have picked a better school,” he says, and while he admits that “my heart wasn’t in pure engineering courses, it worked out fine.”

Discipline, good news, and bad news

Earning a degree in management engineering helped him a lot, John continues, because engineering requires discipline.

“You are presented with a whole lot of problems,” he says, “and first you need to know your goal, what you’re searching for, what you’re dealing with, and what you have to work with. Basic training in discipline was a huge piece in how I went about attacking various issues.”

Pete has a discipline-related story to add here. He recalls the mornings when he would be driving into work—his dental practice in Coudersport—grousing to himself a little bit about having to get up and around, and he’d meet John on the road, headed home for one thing or another, having already been at work for some hours. Anyway, college was behind him and the world awaited. John took a job with Sylvania Electronic Products, Inc. in Emporium, a “booming place in those years.” Sylvania was making vacuum tubes, transistors, and fluorescent lighting; John’s role was as a member of a technical group in marketing, specifically marketing tubes.

“We were showing things to the Japanese,” he says. “That was the beginning of them coming out of the ashes of World War II.” By 1951, John was five years out of the Army, a year out of RPI, and two years away from marrying Doris. It was the year he purchased the theatre in Coudersport. He worked days at Sylvania, and in the evenings sold movie tickets, ushered, and made the popcorn. One of his film salesmen (this one happened to be with the RKO studio) had the idea that John should purchase the fledgling cable franchise that existed in Coudersport. John recalls that early cable television technology built on the work of a fellow over near Scranton who had the idea of putting an antenna on a hill and stringing a line from that. The Coudersport system in 1952 was one of the first in the country and was about equal in complexity. People paid $3.25 a month for service (some strung their own lines off their own hill and paid nothing) and got two snowy channels, one from Altoona and one from Johnstown. The RKO salesman assured John that cable was the up and coming thing, though. He told him that the customers he would lose at the box office as a result of cable’s burgeoning popularity he could regain through cable.

He told John he really needed to get that franchise.

John was not convinced, nor did he have the money. But the RKO salesman “kept bugging me,” he says, so John talked to the man who had only a few weeks before purchased the franchise and he, for whatever reason, was eager to sell. There was some haggling, some talks with other partners who were already involved, and then, the good news. John Rigas found himself owner of a cable franchise. And the bad news? He found himself owner of a cable franchise. Now what?

“The equipment was primitive,” he reflects. “We had to get permission from Bell Telephone to use their poles (for the line).” His engineering background helped then, as did his long-time projectionist at the theatre. That man became the cable system’s first technician. People resisted paying the initial hook-up fee—John explains that the business rationale for charging a relatively large hook-up fee was that nobody was certain how long this cable television thing would be around, so costs had to be recouped up front. Ultimately hook-up was free. John says he “learned how excited people were to get shows, snowy or not.”

It was another case of “don’t give me the ball,” but, once it was in his hands, he ran with it, and scored.

And then?

The elephant in the corner of the room is, of course, Adelphia. The facts about the rise and fall of a Potter County-based cable television company that once had 15,000 employees and over five million subscribers are also online, and there is no reason to rehash them here.

Pete says that when John was in prison, having been convicted on various fraud charges, he served as a tutor to other inmates. When he was released two years ago because of poor health, hundreds lined the streets of Coudersport to welcome him home. Pete says John has been loyal to the people around here, so that’s why they remain loyal to him. They remember that he served on the Charles Cole Memorial Hospital board, that he worked to get doctors to come to the community, that he made sure there was a theatre for their kids to go to and a school for them to attend.

“He was instrumental in bringing kindergarten to Coudersport and helping to get a new high school,” says Mike.

“School issues became very confrontational,” John remembers, admitting that he really doesn’t like to be confrontational. “It was hard.”

Now

But that was a long time ago. These days it’s confrontation of another sort.

“We’ve been working on our appeal,” John says. “We’ve been actively engaged with trying to prove our innocence and get Tim home.” Tim, his son, remains incarcerated.

And these days, there also is Zito. Zito, in Greek, means “rebirth” or “the dream lives.” Zito is a much smaller version of Adelphia (their use of that name, which means “brother” in Greek, is now legally forbidden), offering digital telephone, television, and high-speed Internet service to subscribers in seventeen states. John helped with contacts while James and Mike have assumed the leadership roles. The triple package is popular, Mike says, but the business centers around the Internet.

John also has his input regarding family land holdings. Just outside of Coudersport there are side hills, farm fields, clean streams, and stands of sugar maples and Christmas trees, all part of what is known as Wending Creek. It is archetypical Potter County, and it is the family’s intention to leave it undeveloped.

That’s a good story for another day.