COUDERSPORT, PA – John James Rigas, the son of Greek immigrants who built one of the nation’s largest cable TV companies only to lose it all in a celebrated case of corporate excess, passed away on September 30, The Buffalo News (TBN) confirmed, adding that “the cable magnate’s death occurs more than five years after officials granted his ‘compassionate release’ after eight years in a federal prison camp at Canaan, PA, anticipating he would soon die.”
He was 96.
“Before he and four other company executives were indicted on fraud charges in 2002, Rigas was one of Buffalo’s most admired business figures,” TBN reported, noting that “he transferred several key components of his company, Adelphia Communications, from his hometown of Coudersport, PA, to Buffalo” and “bought the Buffalo Sabres hockey team.”
Rigas had also “planned to build a multistory corporate headquarters next to the hockey arena, where Harborcenter now stands,” TBN reported, adding that “it all collapsed in 2002 after Rigas, his sons Timothy and Michael, and two other executives were accused of using company funds for personal purposes and hiding $2.3 billion in debt from their investors” and “he was forced to step down as Adelphia’s chief executive officer.”
Born Nov. 14, 1924 in Wellsville, NY in an apartment above the Texas Hot diner operated by his father, Rigas began bussing tables at the age of 9, TBN reported, adding that “after graduating in 1943 from Wellsville High School, where he earned a place in its Sports Hall of Fame as a standout in football, basketball, baseball and track, he enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II. Assigned to an armored infantry division, he saw combat in France.”
After his service, he earned a bachelor’s degree in management engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“As I look back over my business career, meeting after meeting, I can see that I just unconsciously ask, ‘What is the problem? What do we know? What don’t we know?’ ” he told an interviewer, TBN reported. “That sequential, engineering approach became one of my strengths in business. I could reach the heart of the problem a lot quicker than many others.”
When he returned home, Rigas “went back to work at the Texas Hot, but soon found an engineering position at Sylvania’s corporate headquarters in Emporium, PA, commuting from Wellsville,” TBN reported, noting that “in 1951, he borrowed $72,000 from family and friends to purchase a movie theater in Coudersport, the Potter County seat, halfway between Emporium and Wellsville. He sold tickets and made popcorn every night while continuing to work at Sylvania. Many nights, he slept in the theater on a cot.”
Rigas “also launched Adelphia in Coudersport, purchasing the borough’s cable franchise for $300 in 1952 by overdrawing his bank account,” TBN reported, adding that “through the 1980s and 1990s, Adelphia acquired numerous suburban cable TV systems, avoiding large cities, while taking on huge debt.”
“Once he told his secretary, ‘well, Angie, I’m either going to become a millionaire or I’m going to go bankrupt,’” TBN reported, noting that “as it turns out, he would do both.”
Adelphia “grew into the fifth-largest cable TV provider in the nation, with 5.6 million customers across 30 states,” TBN reported, adding that “the company bought Buffalo’s cable franchise in 1998, the same year Rigas acquired the Sabres, and soon he was seen as a leader in the city’s long-awaited economic comeback.”
“A 2001 survey of 800 local leaders conducted by TBN rated him the region’s most powerful and respected businessman,” TBN reported, noting that “his success already had transformed Coudersport” and “in addition to bringing 2,000 jobs to the rural community, he was known for his generosity.”
Rigas “sent checks to the needy” and “flew cancer patients for treatments at the Cleveland and Mayo clinics in his corporate planes,” as “he and his workers plowed snow and cut lawns for senior citizens,” TBN reported, adding that “the Rigases supported Cole Memorial Hospital, refurbished downtown buildings and restored the town’s Lady of Justice statue. Every December, he brought either the Buffalo or Rochester philharmonic orchestra to town for a holiday concert.”
“In his younger years in Coudersport, he was a baseball coach, Chamber of Commerce president and active in the Rotary Club,” TBN reported, noting that “later, he served on the board of St. Bonaventure University, which named a theater in its Quick Center for the Arts for his family. He sent his sons to Ivy League colleges, with all three returning to Coudersport to work for Adelphia and encourage its expansion.”
Rigas “often told people he was just a small town guy who enjoyed helping people… but Rigas also lived extravagantly, with the help of Adelphia funds” TBN reported, adding that “prosecutors said he took cash advances of $1 million a month.”
Rigas “built a 10,000-acre compound outside town, Wending Creek Farm, for himself and his family and turned it into an agricultural showcase,” TBN reported, noting that “a $20 million golf course was being installed on the farm when he was indicted.”
He “also traveled in a Gulfstream jet that he purchased from King Hussein of Jordan” and “in 1994, he bid $85 million to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates, but was turned down because the offer involved too much debt,” TBN reported.
“When he and his sons were arrested at their Manhattan apartment in 2002, they were paraded in handcuffs before an early morning phalanx of reporters and photographers – prompting even President George W. Bush to weigh in,” TBN reported.
“This government will investigate, will arrest and will prosecute corporate executives who break the law, and the Justice Department took action today,” Bush said of Rigas' arrest, TBN reported. “Today was a day of action and a day of accomplishment in Washington, DC.”
“Federal prosecutors presented a version of Rigas far from the benevolent grandfather universally loved by his community,” TBN reported, noting that “they accused him and others of concocting a fraud that cost taxpayers $60 billion, while looting Adelphia of at least $1 billion,” and “they said the Rigases hid Adelphia’s true debt from investors in order to prop up the stock price, hiding $2.3 billion in co-signed loans” while “they also claimed the family used the money for luxuries and buying Adelphia stock, with the company responsible for repaying the loans.”
“Though Coudersport rose and then fell with Adelphia’s fortunes, the town appeared in 2016 to forgive its favorite son's fall from grace,” TBN reported, adding that “many residents, some of whom lost lifetime savings by investing in Adelphia, never forgave him, others continued their admiration.”
“Coudersport citizens launched a petition drive asking the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to release an ailing Rigas, who had been diagnosed with bladder cancer,” TBN reported, noting that “when he was released, Coudersport celebrated” and “dozens of residents swarmed the town square in the cold of a February night as he was driven from prison into his adopted home town.”
“His old friends and employees held welcoming signs in front of the historic Potter County courthouse and erupted into thunderous cheers” and “swarmed his car shouting ‘God Bless You, John’ and ‘Welcome home, Mr. Rigas’ and ‘We love you,’” TBN reported, adding that “a frail Rigas seemed overwhelmed by his welcome, waved, blew kisses and flashed a V victory sign.”
“I can’t believe all these people came out just for me, God bless you all,” he said at the time, TBN reported.
In the subsequent years, Rigas “lived quietly on the family farm, directing the remnants of the family business and working on the case of his son, Tim, whom prison officials released in 2019,” TBN reported adding that in a 2018 TBN interview, “he credited immunotherapy sessions every three weeks – which he would not have received in prison – for prolonging his life. And luck, too.”
“I’m blessed, I really am,” he said at that time, TBN reported.
His wife of 61 years, the former Doris Nielsen, passed away in 2014.
Survivors include two other sons, Michael and James; one daughter, Ellen; and six grandchildren.
A private funeral service is planned, TBN reported.