Interview Date: Wednesday October 11, 1989
Interview Location: Coudersport, PA
Interviewer: E. Stratford Smith
Collection: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only.
Update: John Rigas passed away on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
See also his 2000 Oral History and 2001 Cable Hall of Fame listing.
SMITH: This is October 11, 1989 and we’re commencing the oral history interview of John Rigas, Chief Executive Officer and President of Adelphia Communications. This is Tape 1, Side A. John would you mind stating your name for the record?
RIGAS: My name is John Rigas, John J. Rigas, the J. stands for James. I was named after my father, which was a Greek tradition that the oldest son is named after the grandfather.
SMITH: John, we want to go as extensively into your background as you are comfortable and, if you don’t mind, would you tell us when and where you were born?
RIGAS: I was born in Wellsville, New York which is located in the southwestern corner of New York state, population approximately 7500 people, on November 14, 1924.
SMITH: You mentioned that you were of Greek parentage. You were born in this country, were your parent’s immigrants or were they also…
RIGAS: My parents were immigrants, and my father came over at the age of 18 from a village in the central part of Greece called Arachova, which is way up in the mountains. The elevation was approximately 5500 feet. The village was the last village on that mountain. He came to America and over a period of years worked on the railroad and eventually tried a small theater in which he lost some money. Then he later on opened up a billiard and had locking processing cleaning establishment. Anyway, in 1920 he went to Wellsville and he opened up a restaurant as all good Greeks should open and do. The restaurant is still in existence. It’s managed and run by my brother and now his son is still managing. The name of it is the “Texas Hot” which in those days primarily specialized in hot food with a chili sauce, but over a period of years it has evolved into an institution where they have a lot of short order sandwiches and meals and it’s really a big part of my heritage and my family. I was born over the restaurant.
My dad in 1922 married my mother who came from the same village. It was one of those marriages that was arranged in that he wrote back to his brother and said, “It’s time for me to get married and who would you suggest.” My uncle in the village had suggested my mother and they talked it over and my mother knew my dad’s background and family, he liked the picture, and so they came to this country and got married over the restaurant.
SMITH: And your mother did not actually know your father prior to the time she got on the boat, is that right?
RIGAS: Well, she just knew him by his reputation.
SMITH: That’s interesting. What was your mother’s name before she married your father?
RIGAS: Eleni Brazas. My mother is presently still living and she is 88 years old. She has moved back over the restaurant and it’s really a joy to go back to my hometown and of course, be part of the restaurant and seeing my mother and visiting with her.
SMITH: What sort of educational background did your parents have?
RIGAS: Well, essentially, they had the traditional background in those days. The country was very poor, going through a number of wars and that’s why so many of the people had migrated to America for opportunities and essentially to just do something better for their families. My parent’s education would be an equivalent to what we call third grade. I think the education was a little different. But by the time they were twelve years old, their formal education was over. They went to sheep herding and whatever was necessary to pitch in and do their share in the family life in the small village.
SMITH: Had your father seen a picture of his future bride before she came over? You mentioned that she liked the picture and knew the family; did he have any prior introduction to what your mother would be like?
RIGAS: Actually, no. I asked him that. He never had seen the picture of his future bride; he just took good faith his brother’s recommendation and saw the first introduction although there was a ten year difference. My father left when he was 17 or 18 and so therefore my mother eight years old and she could just vaguely remember when he left the village. You know there was a big farewell party, etc. The first time they really got to know each other was when he greeted her when she got off the boat.
SMITH: Was that at Ellis Island?
RIGAS: No, it was in Boston. My wife arrived in Harvard, Boston. She was supposed to arrive at Ellis Island but they reverted it to Boston because there were so many immigrants coming in and they were overloaded, so she came to Boston.
SMITH: And your father had gone up there to meet her.
SMITH: And they want home and got married, is that it? How did it work?
RIGAS: Yes, what they did is they had a civil marriage in Boston. They had some acquaintances in Boston that were first and second cousins that greeted my mother. She stayed with them one or two days and then they took the train back to Wellsville. My dad had the apartment over the restaurant and was sharing that with another couple and two of their children which were from the village. The following week they had the church wedding and all of that that went with it.
SMITH: How long did the other couple and children stay in the apartment?
RIGAS: Well I was born and my sister was born. They stayed there another three years and they had found another apartment vacant next to the restaurant and moved into that.
SMITH: Did they have an interest in the restaurant with your father?
RIGAS: Yes, they did. My father began the restaurant and about a year later they had worked together in Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania and Mr. Raptis had asked if they ever had an opportunity if he’d be interested. So my dad thought he needed some support, needed a partner and so he called him in Wellsville and they joined a partnership and they stayed partners up to the age that each one passed away ‑ some 60 years later.
SMITH: You mentioned the gentleman’s name.
RIGAS: George Raptis.
SMITH: You’ve mentioned a sister and you’ve mentioned a brother. Could you tell us what their names are?
RIGAS: Sure. I was the oldest in the family and then my sister Katherine was number two and then my brother Constantine which everybody called “Gus.” The translation happened when they came off the boat. I guess somebody said well, Constantine is too difficult to spell, nobody would understand it in those days, so they called the Constantine’s Gus. Very strange translation. All Constantines, so many of them became Gus’s. Then I have a sister Mary.
SMITH: Oh, you have two sisters.
RIGAS: Katherine and Mary and one brother Gus.
SMITH: Are your sisters living?
RIGAS: Both sisters are living.
SMITH: Where are they at?
RIGAS: Katherine lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee and married a doctor. Dr. William Palace, who later on had developed some interest with my efforts in cable television as an investment. He ended up selling his system to Xavier Cugat.
SMITH: The entertainer, the band leader?
RIGAS: Yes. I’ve got to check that out because I’ve got a feeling. I’m pretty sure it was. Abby Lane?
SMITH: Abby Lane was married to Xavier Cugat.
RIGAS: Ok, so I was right. Anyway, he was an OBY specialist and he’s presently is in Chattanooga. Katherine is still alive. My brother Gus came back after college and he continued on with the restaurant and did a marvelous job of developing it and studying its reputation. In 1955 he and I joined into a business where we obtained the franchise and we had a business relationship up until ’81 or ’82 at which time we decided to do other things to cash in. That in turn leads to the name Adelphia which maybe won’t fit in, but you can sort it all out when we’re finished, when we’re talking about later on when we put some of our systems together, we’re trying to think of a name. I suggested, why don’t we use the Greek word for brothers which is Adelphia so that accounts for Adelphia Communications and now it’s even more appropriate because my three sons are involved with the business and the name fits pretty well. My sister Mary lives in Olean, New York which is 30 miles away from Wellsville; it’s where St. Bonaventure is located. She has a restaurant with her husband.
SMITH: The restaurant business just kind of runs in the family, doesn’t it?
RIGAS: Well, to me, you know, sure restaurants have a lot of nostalgia, but it means an awful lot, just going back to my hometown which is 30 miles away from where I presently live to see a lot of my classmates who are really customers that we grew up with. It’s just a great relationship. I find that over a period of years I probably do my best business in restaurants where I can hear the dishes clanging and the orders barking in the background. Sometimes I get in an office and it’s much too peaceful and too quiet for me to concentrate.
SMITH: As the interviewer, John, I’m not supposed to do too much talking, you’re the man to talk, but I simply have to let it get on the record the last time I talked to you on the telephone, I reached you at a restaurant where you had a telephone on your table. Do you conduct a lot of business from the restaurant, do you?
RIGAS: I really do. It’s interesting. I start my day in a restaurant, 6:30 ‑ 7:00. I find the restaurants ‑ some are busy, some are not. I feel more comfortable that way. I don’t know. People maybe can’t search me out as much in restaurants. When I get into the office there are all kinds of interruptions, so I do a lot of business. Later on, and when I think about it, I’ve got to tell you how once when Milton Shapp was making an offer to buy one of our cable properties, my brother Gus was working over the grill and I was standing there by the grill. In the background it would be,” one hot beef, two hots without onions” and Milt Shapp finally said, “What the hell is going on down there?” I’ll elaborate on that later on.
SMITH: John, I had the pleasure of visiting last night and meeting your wife Doris who I don’t think I had met earlier, if I had it was just in passing. When were you and Doris married? Give us a little background on that meeting.
RIGAS: Well, I first met Doris on a blind date in college and we dated perhaps two or three times, but nothing very steady. She also dated a couple of my fraternity brothers, so we’d see each other, particularly when she was a senior and I was a junior. I had spent three years in the service so she was attending Albany State University and I was attending Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute. When she graduated she accepted a position in my hometown of Wellsville teaching. Teaching English. When I came back after my graduation, we began to see each other on a more regular basis and on February 1, 1953, we married.
SMITH: Is Doris also of Greek ethnic background?
RIGAS: No, her parents both were immigrants from Denmark. So her background is Danish and that’s a pretty good mix because the Greek king was Constantine and he married a Danish princess and we always thought that was a pretty good follow-up. But we always joke about it. I put on my fraternity house bulletin board, little clippings from the local paper, that Doris Nielsen, that was her maiden name, had accepted a position teaching in Wellsville and I facetiously put on, “Well, obviously she’s trying to trap me, and she followed me to Wellsville.” It was just kind of a joke but as it turns out we did meet and match.
SMITH: And frat men or not, it was ok.
RIGAS: Turned out real well. Going back to my hometown of Wellsville, which obviously has meant a lot and meant much to the family, it was a great community to grow up in. I had a wonderful childhood and as I went through high school although I wasn’t very large, I enjoyed a lot of great popularity with my fellow classmates, played a lot of the sports and for all that I was thankful and got an awful lot of support from the storekeepers on Main Street that we grew up on and were very sympathetic because my playground was essentially the alleys and the main street. There were five other Greek families and we became very close and the childhood memories and growing up together. You either had a confectionary store or a restaurant.
When I was growing up I went to Greek school. After your regular school was out, we had to go to classes from 4:00 to 6:00 and learn our Greek and then Saturday mornings was classes from 9‑12 which were reveled and hated but I look back on them as a wonderful thing.
SMITH: Was this your family’s effort to preserve your heritage, make certain that you didn’t get too Americanized?
RIGAS: Exactly. Because initially it was a strong tie back to the homeland and with the idea that perhaps they would be going back. But, at least if they didn’t, it was important that we understood the culture and the language and I think that has been an important part of my life too and I think that’s been great. Most Greeks were Greek Orthodox, 99.9% of them belonged to that and the Church had a big influence keeping the community together and that kind of background too.
SMITH: You mentioned that you were quite active in sports, as a youngster. What sports in particular did you enjoy?
RIGAS: I enjoyed them all, I guess it was that as I grew up I played… I wasn’t a great athlete but I must have had something in that day because I played four years of varsity baseball and I lettered in track for four years. I was on the varsity basketball team, junior and senior year and lettered in that and I played football for my sophomore and junior year. I tore my cartilage and I couldn’t play my senior year. Yeah, I was pretty active in sports, I guess.
SMITH: What position did you play in baseball?
RIGAS: It’s hard for me to believe this, but I struggle with all this, but in those days I played shortstop and I can’t believe my arm was strong enough to do all that. I was quick and could move around. One of my heroes when I was growing up was Phil Rizzuto because he was short in stature and what not. Yeah, I was shortstop and track I ran the dashes, the hundred, the 220, and in football I played in the backfield, in those days you went both ways, and so on.
SMITH: It’s difficult to visualize you on a football team when you look at the size of today’s players.
RIGAS: One thing while we are talking sports, two stories. One is that when I was a sophomore, one of my highlights of my sports career was a second game we were playing. I got into the game for the first time in my varsity game in the second quarter. I heard the coach yelling, “Give it to RIGAS:” and I got in the game and I was really scared and nervous. They called my play and I took that ball and I must have run all over that field avoiding everybody and just running real scared all over the place. But anyway I scored a touchdown. Unfortunately, they called the play back because somebody was offside and the next day the headlines came out and the first line was, “Wellsville Defeats the Team” and the second line was, “Crowd Thrills to RIGAS: Dash.”
SMITH: Even if it was called back.
RIGAS: Even if it was called back. It was amazing.
SMITH: That’s great. You said there was another sports story.
RIGAS: Well, one thing is that I was going to relate, I know that my business career life kind of relates to my football experience in this respect. When I was growing up I always seemed to be playing because of the way the neighborhood was constituted, with older children. Two and three years older, four years older. I was small and quick and so when we were playing football I could remember when they hit me, it hurt. I’d pick myself up and I’d do anything so they wouldn’t hit me and on the other hand, they’d do anything to try to catch me, because it was always a feat. And all the way through growing up, I was always one of those scab bags who was evading everybody, but later on as I’d get into the huddle, and I used to be hurting and I’d think, “God I hope they don’t call my play again.” When they’d call it, you know, you’d take the ball and you get banged and smeared and there was no opening and little discouraged, a lot of discouragement, and you go back in the huddle, take that ball again, and maybe not do too good, but every once in a while there was an opening. You had to know which was a right opening and where the right hole was or you weren’t going to go any place and you also knew, I learned early on that those holes closed up pretty fast.
So intuitively and through whatever it was, you had to pick the right holes and then when you got through the right holes, you don’t know whether you’re going to go through the sidelines, you’re going to go down the middle, you slack up on the speed, you do whatever. I guess, my business experience is that through my life, you’re taught to carry the ball and it hurt, and disappointments, but every once in a while, you find that opening and there were the right openings and you close them fast, whether it was to make a loan or to get a franchise, because they were gone. I think that’s my football story.
SMITH: That’s a beautiful analogy, too. A way of life. You played it like you played the game of football.
RIGAS: You took the ball and lots of times it hurt. There was no gain and lots of times there were some losses, but you went and picked it up again.
SMITH: John, you mentioned your children and we will talk more about them later on because I understand your son is participating in the business, would you tell us when they were born and their names, just identify the children for us now?
RIGAS: My oldest son is Michael. He was born on November 30, 1953. Then my number two son, Timmy, was born May 17. My number three son is James, who was born 19 months later. I’ll check those dates and get them in here. December 17. Then Ellen was born on June 5, and I’ll have to see those years again. So I have three sons and then we got our daughter. All which were born in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, in a little old hospital that had a wooden frame building, family practitioner.
SMITH: When did you move to Coudersport, John?
RIGAS: What really got me to Coudersport was I bought the theater there in 1951.
SMITH: Motion picture theater.
RIGAS: Maybe this is a good time to back up to reflect on that. When I graduated from college, with a degree in engineering, my father asked me to consider going into restaurant with him. I always had a desire to do something in the business environment because that was kind of the environment that my parents and friends had been exposed to and I kind of wanted to try that. I felt that was a place to be where maybe you could control your destiny better and so on. It was a challenge. I tried the restaurant and I worked in the restaurant for approximately nine months, but I really began to feel that the restaurant wasn’t going to be my niche because believe it or not there’s a knack to cooking and I really didn’t perform the best. I could work the grill but maybe not as well as somebody else. I sensed all that, so I began to think of maybe what other opportunity I would have in the business world.
I had a Greek friend by the name of Peter Grafiades who was involved with a chain of theaters. He was always promoting that I should try the theater business. So one day he said to me that there was a theater in Coudersport that was for sale. So we went over and looked at it. It was run down and disarrayed, but we thought it over and of course, that was just the beginning for the box offices were really starting to slump off because of the inroads of television. The question was how much time do we have before the box office, what is the future of the motion picture theater? Recognizing there were a lot of risks, and my father didn’t have any cash, nonetheless, we decided that there was a few years before TV stations were going to proliferate perhaps in rural America, so if I really worked hard, I could build up an asset base, so we took the risk and a gamble and we paid, which was as I look back on it, it was an unreasonable price, but I paid $72,000 for the motion picture theater in those days and saw immediately I started with a nice debt.
That brought me to Coudersport. I was commuting between Wellsville, so what I was doing was in the first year I would work some in the restaurant, and had the theater open in the evenings trying to sock all the money I could in a way to pay off the mortgage. All the banks had turned us down. We didn’t have a bank loan. My dad had 5000 dollars to contribute, I didn’t have anything. Then we went to some of our Greek friends for another 20‑25,000 dollars which they were willing to lend essentially my dad and then the seller took a mortgage on the rest of it. So that began my theater career. The theater is still in the family, we still operate it on weekends and it’s still part of our lifeblood in Coudersport.
At the time there were five theaters in the county and none of them have survived and we’re still there. I’ve got to tell you that after the 60’s, you know you were just a loser but I felt that I’d like to keep it alive as long as I could and the theater has struggled but the last two or three years, it’s kind of turned around. Just the other day, I couldn’t believe it, my bookkeeper came into me and said, “John, don’t you think we ought to take the money out of the theater’s checking account and put it into a Hi‑Fi account or something and draw some interest.” I said, “I’ve never had any money in the theater account. How much have we got?” He said, “We have $10,000.” So for the first time, I said, “I can’t believe that. That’s unheard of.” So there we are.
The theater business has really picked up in the last two years for a whole lot of reasons, but that’s another story. So the theater is still there, we’re still making popcorn and selling tickets.
SMITH: In reading some background material on your company, I noticed that apparently the theater business there had something to do with your entry into the cable business. Is that right?
RIGAS: Yes, it sure does. It has a big part of it, actually. Strat, I suppose that if anybody can actually make the claim of being at the right place at the time right time, I guess this is the story that probably verifies that. Let me give you a little history about that. When I went into the theater business, I knew absolutely nothing about booking, about how the films were bought, what was happening. But I decided instead of booking a company, book the movies, I would like to try my hand at it. We used to have approximately 20 film companies and salesmen that would make their rounds every thirty days to book and sell the shows, M.G.M., 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and R.K.O. had a gentleman by the name of Sam Milberg. Remember that name when it comes to RIGAS:. Sam Milberg. Sam Milberg was a salesman that I had a lot of respect for in that he was a marvelous encyclopedia of all the movies that were ever made. He grew up in the business, his father was a salesman early on and he knew the directors, the cast and he just had a wonderful mind for all of that. And loved the business.
But Sam was also an individual that most people avoided because he was the type of a guy that if you went to the restaurant, he spilled egg on his tie, insult the waitress, and there was always some embarrassment. Always broke, and the other salesmen would never go to lunch or dinner with him because they would always have to pick up his tab if, you know. But, what happened is one day, Sam said to me, “Well, John, he said, you know as I’m traveling around western Pennsylvania, I’m noticing that the small towns are beginning to bring in some television by wire.” “You know, he said, I think you ought to get into that. To protect your theater investment.” I found it very difficult to say no, that’s still one of my traits, I’m not very good at saying no. I said, as courteous as I could be, “Sam, I just got into the theater business, I’ve got a big debt, I obviously don’t have any money, and this was in 1952, the last part of ’52.
At this point I had taken a position as an engineer for Sylvania Electric in Emporium, which was about a 33 mile drive. So what I was doing, I was driving in the day time to work as an engineer at Sylvania Electric and then in the evening I would run the theater and do my booking and meet with my salesmen. With the idea that I would live off my income from Sylvania Electric and put everything I could into paying back my debts. Anyway, Sam started explaining to me how they were bringing it in. I had a theater exhibitor by the name of John Troy that is doing this in the little town of Tidioute, Pennsylvania. He has a theater there, just a small tiny theater. He said, “I’m going to have him call you up.” I thought fine. Well I never hear from anybody and that would all disappear. I wasn’t concerned about it. I never really gave it any serious thought.
So about two or three weeks later, Sam was in Tidioute and he had asked Mr. Troy to give me a call, which he did. Mr. Troy was being very nice about it, and explaining how he ran this wire in, they hadn’t had any customers but they were starting to run in and this sort of thing. So I listened and he explained what they were going to do. I thanked him and promptly forgot about it. Next time, Sam came up and said, “What did you think about that?” I said, “Well Sam, I’m sure that television is going to come to all of these communities because I noticed some of the people on the side hills are starting to bring in television to hook up two or three of their homes in the neighborhood and running their own lines and so you know, I’m sure I’ve got to contend with the competition from TV and it’s happening now. But I really don’t have any money for this kind of a project and I’m busy and I’m trying to pay all of this back.
He said, “Well, John, you’ve got to do this. This is the way you’ve got to go.” I said, “Well, that’s easy for you to say but I don’t have any money!” He said, “John, this is an opportunity. What you’ve got to do is get the license.” We call our franchise our license. I said, “Well, I don’t really have any interest,” but Sam was persistent. Sam was a salesman. The best way to get rid of Sam was to say, “Ok, Sam, I’ll call.” So the next time he came up and I hadn’t called…
End of Tape 1, Side A
SMITH: This is Tape 2, Side A. We did not record Side B on Tape 1. This is still October 11th and we’re interviewing John RIGAS:, President and Chief Executive Officer of Adelphia Communications. John, when the tape ran out on the other side, we were talking about the efforts of Sam Milberg to get you to acquire a franchise in the cable business. Would you like to proceed with the rest of that story?
RIGAS: Sure. So when I talked to the president of council in Coudersport, he told me that that franchise had already been given out. I was really relieved. Would you believe that Sam Milberg said to me, “Well, call him up and see if he’ll sell it.” I thought I was home free so many times and I said, “Sam, I don’t have any money I’m sure it’s an embarrassment.” I remember I said, “Let me think about it.” So he said, “Well next time I come up I hope that you will have called him up and see if he will sell the franchise because I really believe that this is the way they are going to have television in these small towns. It’s a great way to protect your investment in the theater business.”
This guy didn’t have any money, he really wasn’t a business man. He was an idea man and always has been. That’s why he was creative. He could always put those double features together. Bring in the Tarzans, the Roy Rogers on Friday and Saturday at $12.50 and you’re going to make a bundle of money. Next time he came up in about thirty days, one of the first things he brought up, I remember he said, “Well, did you call up about that franchise” and I said, “No, I don’t have any money. I’ve got enough to concern myself with, I have a son.” But I couldn’t say no, so I thought the easiest way to get rid of Sam was to call up and the guy would say, “No, it’s not for sale.” So I consented and I called up Jack Darfeld [???]
The conversation went like this. He was an older business man, he had a hardware store. He was interested as most people were in those days of selling TV sets. He was looking for a vehicle to do that. So we began with the usual opening remarks and finally I said, “Jack, I understand you have the franchise for the television.” He said, “Yes, that’s right and we’re getting marvelous pictures and a lot of support and a lot of interest. We can pick three and four and five channels and of course, everybody has made that same claim. The truth of the matter is they were lucky to pick up two channels, both of which were snowy, but on one given day, they’d come in from the north and the south and the next day come in from the west. They were all looking for something to sell.
Well, Senator Burger??? was interested in this project and Dr. Mosh[???] and everything was looking very, very rosy. So I felt with that scenario he wasn’t going to be interested in selling the franchise. So Sam was always nudging me, asking me if he’ll sell and sell and I was hesitant because of what he was saying it was kind of embarrassing. Finally, he said, “Well, do you have an interest?” I said, “Well, not really, Jack, then on the other hand that now listening to it, that you might want to sell the franchise.” Lo and behold, he reversed the whole situation and said to me, “My wife is upset with me, going up and down and spending as much time on checking the signals. I’ve got my own business to run. I did offer to sell it to the people I had mentioned and I’m upset with them because they won’t give me what I’m asking and they tell me there’s no value to it.” So he said, “Yes, I would sell that franchise.” And I was dead.
I guess the next question is that I thought I had one more ace in the whole, it is obviously going to be some price that I couldn’t afford, so I said, Ok, what would you sell it for, Jack. He said, John, I’m going to sell it to you for a lot less money than I asked from them. I’ll sell it to you for $100. I said, “Good God.”
SMITH: And you didn’t have the hundred dollars.
RIGAS: Good God. I overdrew the checking account, but I said come on up and I’ll buy the franchise. I had no idea what I was going to do with it. He came up and he signed it to me and I got the Coudersport TV franchise for $100.
SMITH: That’s a fascinating story and we want to go into your development of your franchise and your financing and your early experiences with it. We skipped into Coudersport a step earlier than we should have because we didn’t get into any real background on where you went to college. You did mention that. When did you go to college, where and give us some information on that?
RIGAS: Before I get into that, let me finish up a little bit of the sequence, what happened after that, if you don’t mind.
SMITH: Sure, go right ahead.
RIGAS: I ought to say this. Sam prevailed and I got the franchise for $100. I really didn’t do any more real honest to gosh hard thinking about it. I thought well, maybe something will break and maybe I ought to do something about it, but I didn’t know what. About a week later, I received a call from one of the gentleman that was trying to buy the franchise. In the newspaper there was a story that was saying that this group that was interested in developing the television system in Coudersport didn’t see any value in the franchise. The city attorney had ruled that there was an obligation and they should try to transfer that and that it would make it easier for the council and everybody. That was what Jack Darfield was alluding to when he said what he was upset with him because they were telling him it was of no value and that they didn’t need that. As it was I think Jack was asking what I had heard, he was asking $500 for that franchise. They were willing to come up with the $500.
Just to prove his point he sold it to me for one hundred. I can’t believe that, but that’s what happened. We had a cup of coffee and a man by the name of Joe English said to me, “John, you cannot prevent television from coming into Coudersport. Protect your theater.” That won’t work and we’re going to bring television in here. We just want you to know that’s our position and that franchise and that piece of paper that you obtained, very simply stated…
SMITH: Do you have that today, John?
RIGAS: I have that someplace and I’ve got to find it for you.
SMITH: Could we have a copy of it and maybe someday the original when your family will let it go?
RIGAS: Well I said, “Joe, I would never expect to keep out television from Coudersport, it’s just not my style, it’s not the intent.” Finally Joe said to me, “Well, what do you intend to do with it?” I said, “My intent is and I don’t know why I said this, but I saw an opportunity to try to bring in television under this contract to the people of Coudersport. He said we don’t need that franchise. He said from what I read in the paper I think there is some validity and it’s just going to be more difficult. But he said, we’ve been talking it over, our group, there was the doctor, the senator and myself, just the three of us, and we thought if you throw in the franchise we’ll give you 25% of the investment and we’ll become partners.
SMITH: Throw in the franchise but they didn’t need it, huh?
RIGAS: Yes. But they said you can help us, you have a degree in engineering and maybe you can overlook the operations and begin, so there’s a place for you. It really came down to the fact that I had the franchise. I said, “How much money are we talking about?” Well, he said, what we can best guess is that we’re going to need about 40 or 50,000 dollars to build this plant. It’s going to have about twelve miles initially and we’ve talked to somebody from Jerrold, so we made arrangements since Jim Berger is the director at this local bank to borrow $40,000 and we hope to get started with that and build most of the system, and it won’t require any cash just sign the notes on good faith.
I thought that was a pretty good deal, so I said fine, with one proviso because I don’t want anybody to think I was careless with my money. Just give me back my hundred dollars for the franchise. So I want you to all know that I got my hundred dollars back and that’s how we made the deal.
SMITH: You got your hundred dollars back and 25% of the company.
RIGAS: That’s right.
RIGAS: And I’ve leveraged ever since.
SMITH: In the best tradition of the cable industry.
RIGAS: So that’s the story.
SMITH: Is this a good place to go back and catch up on your engineering degree?
RIGAS: Only one thing that I would like to comment on. Sam Milberg, about two years later, was always an idea man. Came to me and said John, I got a great idea for you to make some money. I’m in debt with my theater and I’m struggling. He said, “My wife works in a discount place in Pittsburgh and they’re coming in and buying all these items. What you have to do is develop a regional discount house.” This was the beginning of discounts. Of course, I didn’t get into it. But he really was bugging me to open up a discount house in that area. Later on he got transferred to Detroit and I lost track. Someplace in the middle ’60s, he called me up and I hadn’t heard from him and I was really glad to hear from him. He said, after some saying hello and touching base on the families and all that, he said, “John, you and I are going to make a lot of money.” I said, what have you got in mind, Sam, what are you thinking of?” He said, “I’m operating the theaters and we’re doing a big business and what we’re doing is we’re running X-rated movies and he said what we’re going to do is, we’re going to make these movies. I said, Sam, I don’t think that’s my style. But I just thought that was interesting. That was early on when those first X-rated movies were coming on and all that.
SMITH: Think what you could have done, John.
RIGAS: I missed another chance, didn’t I? That’s the end of that story.
SMITH: Let’s go back to college and get your experience there, including your fraternity and if you were active in athletics and so on. Just general background about your college education.
RIGAS: Let me go back to high school if I may. I graduated from high school in 1943 in June. It was in the middle of World War II, obviously and as soon as you graduated, if you were 18 you immediately got your notice to appear to Selective Service. Interestingly enough, a lot more than I ever realized until I went back to have our first class reunion, which was after 25 years, we were trying to put it all together, how many of my class had elected to enlist as soon as they turned 18, rather than wait to graduate. I was one of those who elected to get my diploma before I went into the service. Immediately, the day after I received it, it was a Saturday morning, graduation was on a Thursday night. Saturday morning I got my notice to appear for my physical, so I was drafted in August. The first week of August I reported for duty.
SMITH: August of what year, John?
SMITH: Chronologically, the military comes before the college, so let’s go into that first.
RIGAS: Sure. I reported to Fort Benning, Georgia for my basic training which was infantry training and remember those days, I didn’t know a thing about the service. It was all foreign talk. I had to learn everything and the first time away from home like so many young people, but it was the place to be. As you well know, everybody wanted to serve, I felt most people did. It was a war we wanted to win and so I was really kind of worried that I might not pass the physical for whatever reason and so on. I was lucky enough and I went to infantry training. After infantry training, they had what was known as the A.S.T.P. (Army Specialized Training Program) where if you scored high enough they would put you into special training and maybe get your degree allowing people to get a degree while they were in the service.
After training I transferred up to Indiana University in Bloomington and I began the A.S.T.P. training and about six months into that, they needed a lot of recruits for infantry and there was some criticism, I suppose, for some of those programs. They shut down most of that type of programming as I recall. Then I was reassigned and we formed a new division, armored division, 20th Armored Division in Camp Campbell, Kentucky. So we began the training and I became part of the armored infantry and we prepared ourselves and we went overseas. I was discharged on February 1, 1946 with the lofty rank of PFC. and I want to go on record that I made PFC three times.
SMITH: You mentioned that last night, so let’s have the story of how you managed to do it three times, instead of the usual once.
RIGAS: It’s interesting. I guess I was always a victim of circumstance, but as I look back on it. Probably as I look back in my career, 18, 19, 20 years old, and pretty young. I think I did my job ok and I know that everytime there was a replacement to go to other companies, overseas to fill the infantry ranks…by the way I kept thinking well, I really didn’t belong in the infantry, I was always trying to figure out a way to get transferred out to the Air Corps but they weren’t taking anymore transfers. I thought that engineer sounded better to me than the infantry, but I was always kept in that mold of the state of infantry.
I always felt that one of the reasons that the sergeant’s captain liked to have me around was because I was probably the smallest person in the infantry and in that particular platoon or company. When we’d have the forced marches and the hard conditions out there in training, I think they’d kind of use me as a morale booster. If John RIGAS: could hang in there with that full field pack, by God the rest of us could. I kind of became a favorite with the sergeant, they kept me in the platoon until we went overseas. I think the first time I got up to the high rank of PFC, I went from $50 a month to $54 a month, we were having some training and we were going to go through the infiltration course and that required you to take your rifle and go under the barbed wired fence and people would simulate shooting over you and trace your bullets and all that sort of thing. You’d get all dirtied and muddied up. The half hour before that they wanted us to go back to our tents and clean our rifles and I didn’t think that it made much sense to clean my rifle.
They knew what they were doing as you look back on it, so they pulled a spot check. When they came to my pup tent, I was in there reading a book, I wasn’t cleaning my rifle. Somehow that didn’t sit well with the captain, so they made an example of me and I lost my first stripe. Then when went overseas they gave it back to me. After the service I forget what I lost my second one on, but it was something to do with my rifle again. The third one was an unusual story. The war was over, and we were always told we couldn’t fraternize with the enemy, the Germans. So they put us on, me and somebody else, on a very remote, dirt crossroad and said that your assignment is to stay here and we’ll be back and to see if anything unusual happens. There’s just a little farmhouse out there. So we were there for three or four days. They’d bring us supplies. Anyway, there was an old German gentleman who lived there. Nobody was around so he’d come by and he’d say a few words. We’d kind of wave to him and so on. Don’t ask me how and why, but he must have been eighty years old. We were just talking, somehow we were talking and he motioned to me that he would like to learn how the rifle worked.
There wasn’t anything in the rifle, so I was showing him how the bolts were going back and forth and we were just chatting and just at the time as I was showing him how the bolt was working, a jeep came floating down the road with the captain. He saw me fraternizing with my friend and of course, just went into orbit. He immediately called the whole battalion together and told them about this soldier that was literally giving his guns to the enemy. So they broke me, and I thought surely I was going to get court marshaled for that one, but I didn’t.
SMITH: I have visions of you standing up there, like in the Gary Cooper desert movies and they’re ripping off your medals and awards, disgracing you.
RIGAS: Anyway, when I had enough points and it came time to discharge me, the Congress had passed an act that said if you had enough points you were eligible. I had enough points, but you had to be a PFC. Our division had been redeployed from Germany back through the States and I was in the States when V.J. Day occurred in August. They dropped the bomb. We were on our way to be assigned in California for the invasion of Japan. Our training was going to be in California when the war ended. Congress had graciously passed an act so that in order for me to be discharged I had to be a PFC. So they gave me back my stripes.
SMITH: On again, off again. John, you mentioned getting overseas, but you haven’t discussed anything about what happened to you. Did you see action?
RIGAS: We saw action. When we went overseas, D‑Day had occurred and so we started to go across Belgium and France. Our first initiation was kind of just mopping up behind the more active division. Later on we shot down through Munich and Austria and I saw some action, not a lot. Our company did get the presidential citation for action, I think that we got beat up in Munich pretty bad ‑ around an airport as I recall, because we hit a nest of S.S. troopers that were pretty fanatical and so we crossed the Danzig and so on, but sure I saw some action. As I look back on it and I had the occasion to think back, I went back to Normandy and I visited the beaches and although I wasn’t there at the invasion, it was one of those moments that you freeze in time because they were just getting close to having this fortieth year celebration.
I visited the cemetery and I overlooked the beaches and I walked through the cemetery and I saw all those lives that had been sacrificed, PFC., private, corporal, tech sergeant and I remarked to Doris, God you know, we were just kids. So we were kids and you look at us now when we were there, most of us were in our 60’s and a lot of them were in their 70’s, gotten gray and bald and bent over, but it’s an experience that I was glad to be part of. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody in many ways, but I sure was proud to be part of all that.
SMITH: Where were you staged from, John, when you went overseas?
RIGAS: We landed in Cong[???] then we went across the Belgium and we crossed at the Remodgen[???] Bridge, I think we were the second division to cross that and we went across Germany and so on. We just built in hamlets and houses and fields as we went across though. That’s essentially it. We landed at Cherbourg. They just had cleared the port.
SMITH: Did you get across the channel from England or did you come over directly?
RIGAS: Directly. I remember leaving the States and as our transport convoy was going across I remember that band playing. I don’t know why it sticks in my mind, I guess because it was so ironical. Here we all are loaded up with our full field packs. I was a bazooka guy, I had a bazooka and a rifle and blankets and a gas mask and every other thing, you could hardly see me. The man was playing, “Is you, is you, is you, ain’t my baby?” Couldn’t relate to all of that.
SMITH: Did you say what year you were discharged?
RIGAS: ’46. As a matter of fact interestingly enough, I was discharged on February 1, 1946 which was just an unbelievable day in your life. You can’t express the thing, I couldn’t, of just being behind us, your life is coming together, that freedom that went with it. For me, it was just an exhilaration that I couldn’t express. Then about five years later, on February 1 is the day I received my diploma from college. Two years later, on February 1 is my wedding anniversary. So some great things happened to me on February 1.
SMITH: Those were great days. I recalled that you were married on February 1, but that’s quite a coincidence. I take it that these days at the end of January, you look forward to see what’s going to happen on February 1.
RIGAS: Well, it’s certainly for me of celebration and reflection, no question about it.
SMITH: When you got back and were discharged, you went home to Wellsville, I take it.
SMITH: What caused you to decide that you wanted to study engineering in college?
RIGAS: I think it was Greek immigrant’s aspirations, like all immigrants, I believe, particularly the first generation, that by the way, was a marvelous generation, because the ones that came over and limited education, didn’t know the language, you can’t say enough for them. Not only they that, they had a great faith and a family and religion and great belief in all of that and great principles that it was important to have integrity. It was important that you get the education, it was important that you carry yourself in society, and all of that was fostered through the church and whatever it was there.
All through, it was important that I did well with my studies in school and my family said some way, all of our children are going to be educated. So that was foremost in their mind. When I came back, there wasn’t any doubt that I wanted to go to college. There were three young men that were of the Greek community in Wellsville. Before the war had started, in ’40 ‑’41, they had registered at R.P.I.
SMITH: R.P.I. ?
RIGAS: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Before the war they had approximately 1800, all males in the school. It was the first engineering school founded, located in Troy, New York. The local Episcopal rector had kind of encouraged them that they look at Rensselaer. They were all in the same class. They all graduated from high school and they all went to Rensselaer. When they got out of the service, of course, they went back to continue their education. The service had interrupted their graduation. They encouraged me to apply to Rensselaer and they were really good close friends of mine, so I didn’t look at anyplace else, I just looked at R.P.I. I applied, was accepted, and I started my college as soon as I could in the summer session of July in ’46. I accelerated by going two summers and so I graduated in 1950, January. Our commencement speaker was Omar Bradley.
SMITH: You would remember the name for certain.
RIGAS: So I went to college and that’s why the Greek friends and the Greek influence. I was fortunate enough, we had the G.I. Bill which was a marvelous bill. It took care of most of our tuition, most of our needs and I’ve always been supportive of that kind of… So many of our people went on to get their degrees and education, never would have been able to afford, never would have thought about it. Marvelous bill. Money well spent. I had two other friends that I graduated with in 1943, they came back and they also applied to Rensselaer and so we had a pretty good delegation from Wellsville. We had six kids from Wellsville all going to Rensselaer.
SMTIH What degree did you get when you graduated?
RIGAS: Well, actually Strat, I started off not really having a good idea what engineering was about and I really didn’t have a good feeling what education was all about. I decided to become a mechanical engineer. I think that probably in the second year I elected to transfer over into what was known at R.P.I. as Management Engineer, which was kind of an offshoot of Industrial Engineers. Because I recognized that I really wasn’t a pure engineer. The technical subjects came ok, but there wasn’t any question that the real engineers, the people who were really into it, were getting their A’s and I was struggling with my C+’s and my B‑’s and I had to work real hard to make sure that I hung in there. So management appealed to me because they had courses in business and statistics and personnel and accounting and finance and marketing that I felt gave me a little bit better balance, because I was kind of interested in doing something eventually in the business world someplace. It was a marvelous education and Rensselaer was a great school. I can’t say enough about it. Many times I threatened to leave it, it was too hard, and I sure am glad I stuck it out.
SMITH: Well if it were an institution where Omar Bradley, General Bradley, gave the commencement address, it had to be a highly respected institution.
RIGAS: It really is. Undergraduate for engineering, I can’t say enough. It did a superb job. I’m glad I went. It really helped my training in that it taught me how to attack problems. What is the problem? What do we know? Your mind would start to be thinking that way. You’d put down all those factors and as I sat through meetings, many, many times I often thought that logic, that sequential thing, and getting down to the nitty gritty and cutting through a whole lot of things, a lot of it was attributable to the way they just pounded at you. What you have to work with, put it down, what are we looking for and so on. I think that was great for me. It certainly has proved invaluable in my business life.
SMITH: It’s interesting that after you get a degree in engineering management, your father wanted you to go into the restaurant business.
RIGAS: As I look at that, and you know, at this point it was a lot of peer pressure, in the sense that why John, would you go through four years of engineering and then consider to go into a restaurant. That was always an uneasy situation to be in because you did feel self‑conscious, somewhat, about it. I tried, and I have often told young people that it doesn’t really make any difference what you get your degree in. You can use it in many ways. Just get the degree, but don’t be embarrassed if it doesn’t fit in what your major was. Sure, I felt uneasy about working in a restaurant, putting on a white apron, working the grill, but I wanted to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. But I sure couldn’t make a ham and egg sandwich.
End of Tape 2, Side A.