Interview Date: Wednesday December 04, 2002
Interview Location: Denver, CO
Interviewer: Rex Porter
Collection: Hauser Collection
PORTER: I’m Rex Porter. I’m here to interview industry veteran and cable pioneer Mr. Dave Willis for The Barco Library at The Cable Center. Dave, how are you?
WILLIS: I’m very good, Rex, and I’m flattered to be here doing this interview.
PORTER: Well, we consider it nice to have you for the interview. When we think back to the early days of cable engineering, it’s kind of easy to think of Dave Willis, all of your involvement with TCI. Could you talk about your early days, where you grew up, and how you got to where cable became something that you recognized?
WILLIS: Well, I was born and raised in Sidney, Nebraska, a little town in western Nebraska where my family has longtime roots. I had just gotten out of the service; I had been in the Air Force for 4 years, got discharged late in 1954 and went back to my hometown in Sidney. They were just starting to get a few pictures off-air, very long distance from Denver and skip from other areas, but there was no solid television at all. About that time, an outfit, an electrical company from Colorado, Collier Electric Company, decided to build a cable system in Sidney. They were hiring people there, I went down and interviewed with their chief engineer, a fellow named Bob Lewis – not the Bob Lewis we all know and love – and he hired me and turned the construction over to me and went back to Denver. They had already built a 750 foot tower south of town and I spent the first 30 days for them putting antennas on top of that tower. And then we started construction in about August and we pretty much had it finished by the first of the year. We had 1,500 customers and we charged $129 for a contract and the rate was, I think, about 4.50 a month at that time and we basically had the channels from Denver which was 4, 7, 9, and 2, and we operated off the air like that for quite a number of years.
PORTER: Whose equipment?
WILLIS: The line equipment with the trunk amplifiers were Amplivision, all low-band, and for bridging amplifiers we used a modified Blonder-Tongue. It was basically an MLA with the high-band tubes removed and it was tapped onto the trunk line using capacity with resistive taps.
PORTER: Pressure taps?
WILLIS: Not pressure taps, a soldered in resister or capacitor located in an aluminum box that we actually had milled in Denver, and it had a lid on it with a rubber gasket and a little thumb screw that you tighten it up with.
PORTER: This was Collier that owned the…?
WILLIS: Collier Electric Company, yeah. Collier built Laramie, Wyoming, Sterling, Colorado, Sidney, Kimball, and Gehring, Nebraska, and then Collier Electric sold to Community TV, which was the company that was owned by Bob Magness and that occurred in 1962, and when we went with Magness I believe that brought his subscriber account up to about 18,000 subscribers.
PORTER: And Scheel was the engineer then? Jerry Scheel?
WILLIS: Jerry Scheel was Bob’s chief engineer. Jerry had been with Bob in Bozeman, Montana at the start of their operation up there. An excellent guy, I always liked Jerry very much and he and Larry Romrell were the technical guys. Romrell was the microwave guy. At that time, by the time Magness bought Collier, we had built a common carrier microwave system from Fort Morgan, Colorado up to Sidney and in fact beyond. We went up to Alliance, Nebraska with it to Kimball and over to Scotts Bluff-Gehring with that common carrier microwave, which was one of the reasons that Magness was very much interested in the system, and we had excellent pictures up there by that time.
PORTER: Now was this Bob Magness’s first venture out of Texas?
WILLIS: No, Bob was operating out of Montana at that time. Jerry, in fact, was hired by Bob in Montana. What happened was after Bob built his first system in Texas he went to Bozeman and started the cable system in Bozeman, and had in fact done a number of franchise efforts in Montana. This was his first acquisition that I’m aware of.
PORTER: And so tell us how you got involved as far as the company that ultimately led to TCI.
WILLIS: Well, Magness bought out Collier in 1962, and then a year or two later for tax purposes, Bob actually moved to Nebraska, lived in Scotts Bluff, and then a few years after that they decided they would move the company to a more central place and there was a big conflict of whether to move to Salt Lake City or to Denver, and ultimately Bob won out and moved the company headquarters to Denver. So Jerry Scheel, Larry Romrell, all those guys moved into the office in Denver. In fact, it was on the second floor of a post office down near Cherry Creek. In 1968 Jerry Scheel asked me if I would come into Denver to be his assistant. We did, we moved to Denver in ’68, I became Jerry’s assistant. A couple of years later, Jerry had a problem with one of his children and decided he needed to quit and go to Canada to locate the boy and see what he could do for him, and so Jerry quit. At that time I had left the engineering department and was managing a group of systems called the district at large, and it was very large. It included systems pretty well spread across the country. Well, I was having a good time because these hadn’t been real well run and I was seeing tremendous progress in them, and pretty much enjoying myself. Well, after Jerry left J.C. Sparkman came to me and he said, “Dave, we need a new director of engineering. Would you like the job?” I said, “No, I’m enjoying myself so much right now I’d just like to stay right where I am.” A week or so later, J.C. came to me again and said, “Dave, we really need to fill that director of engineering job. Would you like the job?” And again, I said, “No, I think I’ll just stay right where I’m at,” and about a week later, sure enough, here comes J.C. again and he said, “Dave, we need to fill that director of engineering job and this time I’m not asking you.” So that’s when I became the director of engineering.
PORTER: Were you in Denver when J.C. first came onboard with TCI?
WILLIS: I was. I was in Denver then and our executive vice-president was Bill Brazeal, and Bill was a wonderful guy, very difficult to make decisions and we lacked in those days the ability to respond quickly to changing events because Bill was a little reluctant to make decisions. Well, when J.C. came onboard that was certainly altered because J.C. made a decision right now, and I’ve got to say he made more right ones than wrong ones by a good deal, but he was quick. When you needed a decision, boy, you got it! And that was exactly what we needed at that period in time. Bill ultimately got into some serious physical problems and had to leave the company, and I’m sad to say a few years later passed away.
PORTER: Well, he went on and owned his own cable system in…
WILLIS: The company was always very generous with guys like Bill and we got him a franchise in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and helped him finance it, build it, the whole works, and Bill went up there for a number of years and ran that system.
PORTER: When you took the job as chief engineer for TCI, about how many cable systems did TCI own then?
WILLIS: I’m not sure I can tell you that. I can tell that when we moved to the Denver Tech Center, which was 1971, which was not too many years later, as I recall we had about, I think we had about 300,000 subscribers and we had pretty much decided that that was about as many as one management organization could handle, and as we expanded from there we started to break up into divisions, and of course the names changed from districts to divisions to who knows what over the years. But for a long time we tried to maintain about that number of subscribers in an individual management systems.
PORTER: You told me a story one time about being in an office that was below a beauty parlor?
WILLIS: Well, no. When we were in Cherry Creek, and we were expanding a little bit and we were in the second floor of the post office building, and we had the microwave division in the same place, and we got very crowded. So I went to the boss one day and said, “Look, I’ve located some office space across the street, down half a block. Could I move the engineering department over there?” And he said, “Yeah, go ahead.” So we moved the engineering department to the second floor of a building in the next block. We were over top a bar and there was a beauty parlor and a travel agency and so forth that shared the floor with us. A tremendous place to have an office full of men because they had our coffee made in the morning and were always very gracious to us. It was quite an experience. I was trying to think of the name of the bar – it’s still down there. It doesn’t come to me.
PORTER: This was before you moved down to the location in Denver Tech Center?
WILLIS: This was before the Tech Center, yes.
PORTER: And then the first location that you moved to in the Denver Tech Center I think now is a school.
WILLIS: It’s a church.
PORTER: Oh, it’s a church.
WILLIS: We moved into a single-story pretty spread out building down there. At the time that we moved to the Tech Center there was a controlling rule in the Tech Center that you couldn’t be over two stories high, and that was because the Kodak Building, they were the people that owned the thing, the people that owned that building, and they didn’t want any buildings higher than theirs, and it remained that way for a good long time. Then the Tech Center was purchased by some other interests and right away there was high-rises going up all over the place.
PORTER: Back in your early engineering days, let’s go back, as far as Collier and the early TCI days, most of the cable systems that you would have worked in and been in charge of would either have been a low-band system or, well, probably at Collier we didn’t have anything except low-band systems.
WILLIS: Well, Collier built a 12-channel system in Laramie, Wyoming, a 12-channel system in Sterling, Colorado, prior to building the low-band system in Sidney. Bob Lewis was their engineer and Bob was an adventuresome thinker. He was a retired Lieutenant Commander for the Navy, and he had nothing if not imagination. He even visualized one time that we might go above a city and suspend a balloon with reflective covering and bounce signals off of that balloon to all over. Well, he came up in Gehring, Nebraska with an idea that we could serve the entire town with one amplifier, and what he decided to use was a translator transmitter. We had four of them and we stacked the output of all four of those translators and we did feed the entire city.
PORTER: You had one amplifier?
WILLIS: One amplifier was all, the one at the headend. It was a difficult system to keep operating and the system was built using spiral fill cable, which is an air dielectric with a spiral…
PORTER: That’s the old Phelps Dodge?
WILLIS: Yeah, exactly, and we had so much change because of moisture content and the amount of signal that we were pumping through it that we ultimately had to put nitrogen through the system all the time. So we had to work out a process of putting little beads to hold the center conductor in place and drilling little holes in that to let the nitrogen through. It was a bloody mess.
PORTER: Tell us about something that technicians and engineers today, and probably operators today, wouldn’t have any comprehension of, and that’s tube type amplifiers, burning in the tubes. We don’t burn in transistors. Maybe you can touch on that a little bit?
WILLIS: Well, yeah, we used to have pretty good sized racks set up where we would plug in the tubes and let them have a burn in period because the reality was that tubes tended to die, literally die, very early in their life or they’d last a long time and would gradually deteriorate over age. So you did have, you had a burn in rack. And then what you did was you would have racks of tubes and you’d periodically go and change your tubes. I really didn’t ever want to do that but we had to do it because our chief engineer Bob Lewis told us to do it. I finally convinced him that we were causing more problems taking those tubes in and out so many times than if we would simply check the performance. You did check the performance by checking for the amount of hum in the picture and things like that. It was funny, in Sidney I found out this one particular television set, and it was handled by – oh, God, the memory fails, a weird name – anyway, I found out that that was very susceptible to hum. You started getting rippley pictures right away. So I bought one, and I lived on the last amplifier in the town, the furthest from the headend.
PORTER: It sounded like a Harmon-Kardan.
WILLIS: It wasn’t a Harmon-Kardan.
PORTER: I remember a guy that left some of the IF stages out because that’s the TV you’re talking about. You could buy them relatively cheap.
WILLIS: Well, this was not an expensive set and it wasn’t a very good set in any direction, but it was really susceptible to hum. So I knew before anybody else in town when we were starting to get hum, and when I first detected hum in my system we went out right away and got on the trunk line because we knew it was coming, and sure enough we’d always find some problems.
PORTER: Well, your original amplifiers when I started in engineering cable systems, everything was tube. Tell us, was there a shock factor when you finally had to operate a cable system and build a cable system purely transistorized?
WILLIS: Well, my first transistor system was in fact Sidney, and my first experience with transistors really soured my outlook. Bob Magness called me one day and said, “Dave, we’ve got a whole system in the warehouse in Montana,” a little town in eastern Montana, I don’t remember the name, he said, “I want you to drive up there and get all that stuff down to Sidney and install that stuff in Sidney.” I said, “Okay.” So I drove up there and there was an entire system of Ameco amplifiers. The entire electronics for the system fit very nicely in the back of my station wagon, it didn’t take up much room. I hauled it back to Sidney and the first thing I did was we had about a 7-mile trunk run and I installed those amplifiers on that trunk run. We had a power supply in the headend and another one close to town. The first night after we got everything working – and it really looked pretty good, the pictures – we had an electrical storm. I couldn’t even find the power supplies on those amplifiers. It actually vaporized the printed circuitry in the power supplies. They were just gone! So they lasted almost a full day and then we had to replace the entire line. Well, ultimately we did wind up installing those Ameco amplifiers in Sidney, Nebraska. That occasion made us spend a good deal of time with Mr. Bruce Merrill down in Phoenix at the Ameco plant trying to figure out how the hell those things were supposed to work.
PORTER: Well, now was this… there was a period of time when he had DC powered amplifiers. Were they already AC?
WILLIS: These were AC, yeah, these were AC. This was the ATM series.
PORTER: ATM 20s?
WILLIS: Yeah, and before the pacesetters, we ultimately wound up with pacesetters in Sidney, but the ATM series was really pretty bad, and that was at the same time that Jerrold came out with their first TML series.
PORTER: TML line. Well, I can remember one of the funny things, the first time I ever worked on a transistorized system, we’d never seen beats before, we didn’t know what beats were. So in cold weather we’d start getting beats so we ran out and turned the amplifier up thinking that was the problem…
WILLIS: Making it much worse.
PORTER: Yeah, and that was a problem you never had with tube type amplifiers. Did you ever run into a similar situation?
WILLIS: Yeah, we had… our run to town was tremendously stable because it was buried, but the minute you got to town of course you had problems, and everybody had an AGC system in those days, by and large it was totally inadequate, and yeah, you’d get some of the damndest beats you ever saw. The temptation was always to turn it up.
PORTER: We didn’t know what they were.
WILLIS: It didn’t take long to figure out that, yeah, we were going the wrong way. So we would have our certain points, the specific amplifiers that we’d know, uh-oh, better go out and turn it down. I think most of us wound up installing… because by that time you had a box out there and the amplifiers were mounted in the box, this was before they were pole mount. So we would typically have two or three amplifiers spots where you would have switchable attenuators at the input of the amplifier.
PORTER: How did you find your technical help back in the early days? Of course we have organizations like the SCTE today, and we have NCTI courses, but other than RCA that had their courses, or the Cleveland Electronics Institute, unless you got a guy out of the service…
WILLIS: And that was the primary source. In fact, I went to electronics school in the Air Force and then worked on airborne radar, enjoyed flying for a couple of years on that beautiful airplane, the B-36 which should never have ever gotten off the ground. But when I got out of the service then I immediately contacted RCA institutes, started taking correspondence courses, took a whole bunch of them. Most of the guys that we had in those days that did have some electronics were from the service, from the military some way or the other. To be honest, I don’t remember if… Jerry Scheel went to a school in South Dakota, in southeastern South Dakota. He was one of the few guys I knew that actually had a college degree in electronics in the very early years.
PORTER: Well, of course all the manufacturers, all the big manufacturers, they would hold schools.
WILLIS: Yes, you had a lot of manufacturer schools. I guess I don’t recall any of the majors that didn’t have schools. Pretty much the operators sent their people to the schools. They had to. Let’s face it, we were kind of flying blind in those days.
PORTER: That’s where I got my first training in transistors was Ameco was getting into the transistorized equipment line. Did you ever go to the Ameco school?
WILLIS: Absolutely, in fact I think I went to Ameco schools twice. Ameco used to run a little van around the countryside and they would stop by our office, and it was very handy for us. Specific parts we needed or a specific amplifier, whatever, we would buy them right off the van. One time I went to school in Phoenix, at Ameco, and I’m struggling for the guy’s name…
PORTER: Varryl Anderson?
WILLIS: No. He was the guy that came up with the idea of buying those motor homes.
PORTER: Oh, okay. The Ameco vans, they called them, the Roadrunners.
WILLIS: Yeah, and they were very proud of them and took me out to show me one and show me through it and everything, and I said, “These damn things ain’t going to work.” They said, “Gee, why not?” I said, “Well, you go down the road in Wyoming in the wintertime in this thing? It ain’t going to work.” Eventually that proved to be prophetic because they were a bust. The little vans worked pretty good. The big vans didn’t work at all. Krist, Krist…
PORTER: Oh, Dwayne Krist!
WILLIS: Dwayne Krist.
PORTER: Ended up with Anaconda after he worked for Ameco. One of the things that I think you had as much to do with good change for the industry, all of the purchasing across the United States had been done pretty much on a piecemeal basis, just system by system, and one of the things that you did was you really put a professional purchasing department into TCI and it fell under your control, and that’s pretty much been followed throughout the industry. Engineering has set the standards for purchasing; you set up something that we all hated – I was a vendor for years, and we always were worried because we were worried about whether we could get onto the approved vendors list, and I think that’s something that probably Dave Willis will go done in history of being the father of the approved vendors list. Could you talk to us a little bit about that?
WILLIS: Yeah, in the early years after I took over the director’s job I was in charge of purchasing and training, and I used to say in charge of everything except the windows and the janitor, but in fact I was in charge of the janitors! But we early on decided that we couldn’t have the guys in the field placing orders with just anybody that came along. In fact, we didn’t want them placing orders at all. So in order to let them know what products we were using and to be able to count on what products we were buying, we went to the approved vendors list and this enabled us to test all of the vendors’ materials and say, okay, these are acceptable and these are not acceptable. When you did have an approved vendors list, then you could go to those vendors and say, okay, we want to negotiate pricing with you and you will be our second supplier, or maybe our first supplier, or you will be one of three, or maybe you’ll be the only one, depending on the specific product. But it enabled a lot more focus and we set it up that way and we continued that after I, after long pleading, finally got to hire an actual purchasing agent. I was very nervous for a lot of years because I was the guy that decided the products, I actually signed the orders, I signed the authorization for payment, and negotiated the price, and I could never understand how the auditors could let me do all those things. It took me a good many years before I convince Gary Bracken and Donne Fischer that I really shouldn’t be handling all those things, and ultimately they got me out of that position and I was very thankful for it. I thought I was quite vulnerable.
PORTER: But even today that purchasing department falls under the control of the engineering department.
WILLIS: You have to either be, not necessarily be under the control, but you certainly have to take and use the input of engineering because a purchasing department has no concept of what really fills the bill in the field, and so you have to have the engineering department doing the evaluations, knowing the equipment, knowing what is appropriate for specific applications, and yeah, I think that you almost have to have it that way.
PORTER: One of the people that always impressed me that was with your company, and I don’t know how involved you were. He was a cable operator but his background was always engineering, and that was Charlie Clements. Tell us a little bit about Charlie.
WILLIS: Charlie was a jewel. Charlie had been a pro-basketball player. I don’t know if you knew that.
PORTER: No, I didn’t know that.
WILLIS: And Charlie was also a pilot and a very classy guy. He at one time, before he came with us, he was with several other companies, mostly as an owner, and I believe Nationwide Cable was one of the ones that he owned, and he and his partners ultimately sold it to CBS. He used to tell of the time when they were negotiating the price of those and they were stuck. They were asking 32 million and CBS was offering 31, and they were having their negotiations near a golf course in California, and so they would negotiate awhile and then they’d go play a round of golf, and then they’d negotiate awhile. Charlie told us that at one point in time he said, “Look guys, we’re not getting any place. Let’s just play a round of golf today and whoever wins that’s who gets the million dollars,” and CBS didn’t even seriously consider it, but Charlie was the only guy I know that ever offered to play a round of golf for a million bucks.
PORTER: What was his involvement?
WILLIS: Charlie was primarily, for us, involved in franchising and in acquisitions.
PORTER: But he was an engineer, or was he?
WILLIS: Kind of. Charlie could talk an engineering talk with anybody extremely convincing. As a person to testify before a city council or something, he was excellent, could convince you that he knew everything about it, but it wasn’t necessarily true. But he was a hell of a nice individual and I always had a great deal of respect for old Charlie. Haven’t seen him in a number of years. Last time I saw him was at a Pioneer event.
PORTER: Yeah, at a Pioneer’s Dinner I saw him, probably the same dinner.
WILLIS: I think it was Atlanta, I believe.
PORTER: About 19… you’ll have to hit the year because I can’t remember, but at one time the SCTE after it had finally gotten out of the throes of almost being bankrupt and so forth, one of the common complaints was it’s a good ol’ boys’ organization and you have the same directors on that thing year after years, and we’re never going to get anywhere. So I was sort of drafted by wire, but you’re now an at large member. They didn’t even vote on it, they just said you got voted in. And your job, they made it very plain, your job is to go locate some people out in the industry that can help us change the image that we have, and you were one of the guys that I came and said, “Dave, I know you’re awful busy with TCI but we need some new blood and we need some thinkers,” and I know I got you to come on the board and Bob Luff to come on the board, and he was worried that the NCTA wouldn’t allow him to do that because it might be a conflict of interest. He ends up being the president of the SCTE later. But you were quite helpful, and there was a gentleman from Missouri that came on the same time. There were four people that became very integral to changing that whole image where the SCTE really took on a professional complexion. Can you talk about…?
WILLIS: When I first started actually paying attention to the SCTE and became a member and became active in it, I saw that it could be very valuable to us and so when… my early involvement was there was a woman that was the head of it…
PORTER: Judy Baer.
WILLIS: Judy Baer, and Judy and I did not see eye to eye at all, and I had a lot of problems with her. Ultimately Judy left; I’m not sure what the circumstances were and don’t really care, but she left. And at that point in time I said, well, I think we can turn this thing around now. I was, as I say, in charge of training at that time, and it was pretty hard to scare up a lot of training. You had a lot of vendors, we were pressuring them to come into our various districts and areas and give classes, and they did.
PORTER: This was about 1984, as I remember.
WILLIS: ’84, or maybe even a little earlier. But the vendors were pretty good about it. The connector vendors, the amplifier vendors would come into like a district office and we’d bring in as many technicians as we could, but the SCTE offered a far more organized and more formal type of ongoing training with the courses and so forth that were developed. As you say, I did become a board member for a few years and became very involved with the SCTE, and finally went to Sparkman and told him I thought every one of our technicians should be a member of SCTE and he agreed. And I said, “I think because it really is an advantage to the company, the company ought to pay their dues.” Then we came to a little bit of a disagreement. Ultimately he agreed. So at that point in time, TCI paid dues for all of their technical employees that would enroll in the SCTE, and we basically said, you’ll enroll or else. As a matter of fact, one of the conditions of employment was that they complete the initial SCTE training programs.
PORTER: The BCTE?
WILLIS: To wind up an employee. I have no idea whether those programs are in place anymore or not, but they were as long as I was there.
PORTER: They are, and they’re doing quite well.
WILLIS: Are they? Good.
PORTER: How about the NCTI? That’s a local industry or company here in Denver. Tell us, were you involved with Roland?
WILLIS: I’ll tell you how it happened. Charlie Clements somewhere along the line, and you know Charlie, how he got us involved in NCTI I’ll never know, but we wound up, TCI owned part of it. We quite honestly hadn’t paid too much attention to it. NCTI, for whatever reason, TCI decided to relinquish their ownership for a fee, and NCTI wound up owing us some money. We agreed that we would take that money out in training for various courses. I’m trying to think of the name of the NCTI guy, but it’s not coming to me. Anyway, we did that, and as we got involved in it a little more it became obvious that it was a pretty good training program.
PORTER: It must have been Byron Leach or Roland.
WILLIS: It was Roland Hieb. Byron came along a little later, but the initial guy was Roland Hieb. I remember in about, and I’m probably wrong, but I’m going to say in about ’87 or ’88, somewhere along in there, Roland came over and gave J.C. and I a little presentation, a plaque to TCI, our ten-thousandth student had gone through NCTI. So when we did get involved in it we got involved very heavily, and it was an excellent training facility for us.
PORTER: Sitting back in Collier, you must have had no idea, there must have been plenty of times where you thought this industry’s not going anywhere, they’re going to have enough television stations that one of these days I’ll have to go back to farming potatoes or gathering hay. To just watch TCI develop over the years and add cable systems and add cable systems, that had to be a strange – it might have been a wonderful feeling, but tell us about…
WILLIS: I thoroughly enjoyed the pace that took us from those first 18,000 subscribers to when I retired we had 13 million. The pace was unbelievable. But the reality is that no, Rex, I never sat back and looked at the industry and said is it going anyplace or is it going to die? I quite honestly was too busy keeping my nose to the grindstone and didn’t really look up and look at those kind of things. I was employed by people I liked and I was doing things that I really liked. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all the time I spent in the cable industry. I thought we had a really tremendous quality of people in it. The guys that I worked with were all very conscientious guys, good workers, basically company at heart, and the vendors, I still today maintain a lot of friendships with vendors that I met during those years. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was always amazed at how we were growing, and mostly we grew by acquisition. We were known as the Boy Scouts in the franchising area, and for good reason. I adamantly refused to commit to things that I knew damn well wasn’t going to happen and so we would go into a franchise hearing and this company opposing us would be promising 100 channels downstream and all various kinds of two-way and things that were not on the horizon really. They were ideas and they were ultimately to come about, but not at that time. So we didn’t do that. Well, it got us a damn few franchises. In fact, we lost some franchises where it was patently obviously that we were away the best proposal. The one that comes to mind is in Alaska, Anchorage, Alaska. We were away the best and finally it went to a native corporation. But we learned very thoroughly that we were right in not promising all those things because as the years went on and we acquired other companies and acquisition was our primary mode of expansion, invariably we would acquire a company and then we’d have to go fight the franchises that they had overpromised and we’d have to go back to those cities and say, “Yeah, they said it, but they ain’t us,” and get the franchises modified, and it happened over and over and over. Even to the extent, when we went into Washington D.C., Bob Johnson had the franchise in Washington D.C., and we ultimately agreed to be his partner, it was a financial arrangement, if we could renegotiate the construction agreement which he’d already signed and the franchise which he had with the city of Washington D.C. He agreed and we went in there. At the time we went into Washington D.C. they had committed to nine headends in the nine boroughs that were in the city, which was patently ridiculous, and we had to go in there and tell them you don’t need nine, and the city council of course, one city councilman was getting a headend in his district and he wanted it.
PORTER: He wanted it.
WILLIS: So that was a tough negotiation. We went to the phone company to renegotiate their agreement, which wound up being severely renegotiated and they built it for us, they actually were the construction arm, but some of the changes were tremendous that we made in their agreement, and ultimately turned out to be a pretty good system.
PORTER: You told me a story about Pittsburgh one time where you took over the Pittsburgh operation.
WILLIS: Yeah, when we bought Pittsburgh.
PORTER: Can you tell us?
WILLIS: Well, I can tell you that when we bought Pittsburgh it was using the – what was the name of the system? It was a system where they had a tremendous amount of flexibility of converters and they could monitor the system usage. They could tell you what every subscriber what channel he was watching, it was interactive, they could vote on things…
PORTER: This was the old Columbus, Qube.
WILLIS: Qube! Qube system. They had a Qube system in there. They had one room, the first time I visited the system I about fainted, they had one room with a massive number of television sets and they had guys operating the board there that had monitors in front of them and I said, “What do you guys do?” and they said, “Well, we put the channels on the right channels when we have to.” And they were literally switching the video from channel to channel – just a bloody mess. And so we went in there and of course we did away with that department completely and we took out all of the Qube equipment and put in a very normal, standard system with good quality converters and everything. The people of Pittsburgh though we had put in a new system. They said they couldn’t believe it – the channel stayed on and it was always the channel that was supposed to be there. So by simplifying it we vastly improved the operation. Art Lee was the guy in charge of that acquisition and I thought he did kind of a noble, if risky, thing. He went in there and called all the employees together and fired them all, and said, “I’ll be accepting applications in the morning.” He hired back about 2/3s of them, I believe. But that took a little chutzpah to do that.
PORTER: Now you retired from TCI before AT&T purchase it?
WILLIS: Long before. We had acquired United Artists and we eventually moved into a building with United Artists. In fact, that was one of the biggest disappointments that I think I had in the industry. For many years on Monday morning it was staff meeting, and we would all go to the board room, the staff, and there would be the head of all the departments, including legal and whatever, and we’d go around the table and everybody would tell where they were and what they were doing, what was happening, problems they had, and so forth. Malone would always pontificate for awhile, and I very thoroughly enjoyed those staff meetings and I thought they were very valuable. We moved to the new building and at the first staff meeting the big announcement was that we weren’t going to have any more staff meetings, that from now on everybody should have a staff meeting of his own department, and to me that accomplished nothing for the overall company. So I started to become a little disillusioned at that point in time and decided maybe I was getting too old for this business. One story that I usually tell, and I will tell you this, everybody kind of gets a kick out of it – one day we were in a staff meeting with all of the various department heads in there, the attorneys and everything, and Malone threw out a proposal, would you like to do it. And I said, “John, that ain’t going to work,” and he said, “Damn it Willis, I’m tired of you being so negative,” and I said, “Alright, John, I’m positive that ain’t going to work.” He didn’t think that was all that humorous, but I did.
PORTER: There was a period of time when TCI went through some really rough financial times.
WILLIS: Oh boy.
PORTER: And I know J.C. was on board already then, and I used to go from your office to his office back to your office and so forth because just as you worked with J.C. at TCI, I had worked with J.C. in Kansas City when he was the regional manager for Jerrold, and I remember there was a filing cabinet that was full of stock certificates because he showed them to me. He had heard that I had bought some stock from Ameco when Ameco went public and watched it go up to $36 and then into bankruptcy. So he would kid me, he said, “Why don’t you buy some of this stock, I’ll sell it to you for .75 a share. I’ve got lots of it.” I said, “Stop picking at me, I’m here to sell you cable,” or whatever. But there’s a funny story to that stock because I think because of the way that stock turned out it meant a windfall for TCI. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
WILLIS: It was a huge windfall. That stock came to us when there was a company operating cable systems all over the country and we purchased them. They had systems in New York City and Corpus Christi, Texas, and had some in Tennessee. Among the assets that we acquired with them there were two assets that were very serendipitous that nobody had assigned a lot of value to them. One of them was these warrants to buy Mary Carter paint. The parent of this whole Mary Carter thing ultimately was Resorts International, and Resorts International was eventually given the first gambling licenses in New Jersey, and at that point they approached TCI and wanted to buy back these warrants. Malone negotiated a deal with buying back the warrants. I don’t remember the specific number of millions of dollars but it was a lot of money. And so those warrants, you surely should have bought them because they were worth a lot of money. The other thing we got in that purchase that we at the time didn’t know it was valuable was we got the Mandel Patent, and the Mandel Patent was generated in New York City by Mandel working for… I don’t think it was TelePrompTer at the time, I don’t remember the name of the company. But they invented a converter and the reason they did was because there was so much off-air interference with the televisions in New York City that they couldn’t get any decent pictures through. So they invented a converter that would take their antenna signals and convert them down to one channel so there was no off-air interference in that channel. We ultimately decided that that was a patent that covered all converters and we began prosecuting that patent with the various manufacturers. Went through a lot of lawsuits here and there and everywhere, but ultimately did collect a lot of money as royalty payments for converters that were produced by other entities in the industry. So the Mandel Patent turned out to be a very valuable thing, too. I would guess they probably yielded, ultimately, the same amount of money.
PORTER: So the Resorts International certificates actually became worthwhile when Atlantic City got the gambling licenses.
WILLIS: When Atlantic City gave the first license to Resorts International, they became very valuable. And yes, we did ultimately sell them.
PORTER: I always thought, oh, why wouldn’t I have been silly and say, “Okay, I’ll take 100 dollars worth.”
WILLIS: Yeah, just to wallpaper the outhouse or something.
PORTER: Well, just to leave it there to poor mouth him next time I came in or to you and say, “Well, J.C. took advantage of me over here.”
WILLIS: Or say, look at what I got! Because it turned out to be tremendously valuable stock. The circumstances of the sale and everything are something I don’t want to go into because it is kind of shaky.
PORTER: From your retirement, we never let you really retire. You tried to retire and then Marlowe from The Cable Center came to me one day and said, “We need somebody that knows this equipment that’s all coming in, all this old historic stuff. We need somebody to catalog it, categorize it, know what it is, and so forth.” I said, “Gee, I know just the guy. His name is Dave Willis, if we could get him to come out of retirement partially and do that kind of work for you.” I even remember that Marlowe gave you a call and you said, “Love to do it.” And we took you over to a warehouse that was just loaded down with stuff that Frank Drendel had brought in by truckloads.
WILLIS: Yep, I unloaded some of those Drendel trucks.
PORTER: I know you did a lot of work for The Center and I know The Center is very appreciative. Don’t you feel like that kept you in the industry?
WILLIS: It kept me in a position to talk to and have interaction with a lot of the guys in the industry that are old guys that are well out of it, some young guys that are still in it. I quite honestly have enjoyed very much doing what I did. I went in and catalogued, of course, the whole thing and in doing so found equipment that even I hadn’t seen and a hell of a lot of equipment that I had. But I got to talk to a lot of people and still do. I got a call the other day from a fellow in Minnesota named Sjoberg, and I called him back and started talking to him about what equipment he had and everything and he said, “Well, I want to bring it to Denver in the spring. I’ll drive it in a truck.” I said, “That’s great. I kind of remember your name.” And he said, “Oh, yes, don’t you remember? You provided us microwave from Grand Forks, North Dakota to our systems in Minnesota. It’s good to know they’ve got an old war horse there at The Cable Center.” So I’m looking forward to this spring, him coming down and showing him through The Cable Center, which is a magnificent building, a beautiful facility, although I understand it’s not opening now until June of next year. It is a tremendous facility. We have a very nice display area for the artifacts, amplifiers and so forth, and as I say, I continue to get them from people like Sjoberg and from other guys all over the country. It’s been interesting and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I’ve been kind of out of it, as you know, because of my recent problem with getting another hip but I just this morning before I came down here I sent an email to the girl that puts everything in the website and we made arrangements to meet down there and go over some of the shelving and this and that and the other that I need to get back into as soon as I get recovered.
PORTER: I understand you just got your fourth grandson? Your namesake?
WILLIS: My third grandson, but my fifth grandchild.
PORTER: Okay, and all of them are named after yourself.
WILLIS: Well, not really, but I have three grandsons and their names are Anthony David, Alexander David, and Tyler David, which makes me feel pretty good.
PORTER: You’d have a contingent of people to come down if you just bring your grandchildren to show what you’ve spent all these years trying to build, and quite successfully I might say. I know that the industry’s taken you into the Cable Pioneers, then the engineering people formed its own little society for cable engineer pioneers called the Loyal Order of the 704 and you belong to that.
PORTER: And even more recently than that you were named by Marlowe as an Industry Fellow, and as far as I know, you and I are the only two Industry Fellows. I don’t know whether that makes it a good thing or something nobody else wants to belong to.
WILLIS: Or a bad thing, yeah! Who knows? I would tell you, and God, I really hate to brag but I’m going to, the SCTE also put me in their Hall of Fame.
PORTER: Oh, that’s right!
WILLIS: And I very much was honored by that.
PORTER: So I want to thank you for your time that you’ve given us today on this interview. We’ll look forward to seeing it for years at the archives of The Cable Center at The Barco Library. I wish you nothing but continued success in your endeavors both with The Cable Center and also your continued retirement. Maybe we can let you take a little bit of rest that you now deserve.
WILLIS: I tell you what, I rest plenty. I’ll stay involved with The Center as long as I can, and I appreciate this opportunity to go back and review some of the circumstances of the many years that I spent in the cable industry.
PORTER: Thank you, Dave.
WILLIS: Thank you.