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July 1998

John Rigas

Small Town Boy - Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way

 


by Paul W. HEIMEL

John Rigas doesn’t look for attention, but it always seems to find him.

The gentle Greek-American’s homespun charm and business savvy have won Rigas many friends over the years, especially now that he has assumed the reins of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team and committed himself to restoring the franchise’s proud reputation. Anyone who’s familiar with Rigas’s business career and his dedication to “get the job done” wouldn’t bet against him.

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Greek immigrants James and Eleni Rigas sought a better life in the U.S. Children (from left) John, Gus, Mary and Katherine arrived later.

John Rigas’s mother, Eleni had her name Americanized to Helen.


So who is this silver-haired, diminutive gentleman who is just as comfortable with the Wall Street crowd as he is with his coffee shop cronies in little Coudersport, Pa., Rigas’s home and the birthplace of his family’s multimillion-dollar corporation, Adelphia Cable?

Rigas, 73, exudes humility and compassion wherever he goes, which pretty much explains his widespread popularity.

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John (right) and Gus would
eventually form Adelphia (Greek for “brother”).

The Rigas parents instilled a strong sense of family that was not lost upon their four children.


“I’m always amazed that people think I have some kind of magic,” he explains. “That’s not the case at all. I’ve just taken one step at a time, one challenge after the next, and I’ve had a lot of help along the way.”

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Like many of his generation, John Rigas’s formal education began in a one-room schoolhouse (first standing row-second from left).


His most oft-used analogy dates back to his days on the gridiron at Wellsville (N.Y.) High School, where Rigas was a standout scholar/athlete:

“Our football coach would say, ‘Give the ball to Rigas!’ I didn’t want the ball; I knew I was going to get smeared. But every now and then a hole would open up and I had to decide immediately if it was the right hole, because it would close up fast. So I tell people, ‘Keep taking the ball. It’ll hurt once in a while, but look for that opening. It will be there’.”

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Combat duty in France awaited this high school graduate in 1943.

A standout athlete and honor
student at Wellsville High School.

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“Johnny” was a hard worker and neighborhood favorite.


He has employed that philosophy throughout his adult life, starting a cable company on borrowed money in an era when most people derived their entertainment from radio or cinema; expanding Adelphia’s products and services in a head-to-head battle against some deep-pocketed competitors and, most recently, buying a hockey franchise that has been plagued by personnel disputes.

“John Rigas improves everything he touches,” said Bob Smith, a Coudersport native who recently joined Adelphia’s Marketing Department after spending almost 30 years as a local merchant. Smith has known Rigas since the late 1950s. “We’ve seen it with the properties he’s purchased in Coudersport, where he has restored Victorian homes, with the cable systems he’s acquired, and I’m sure we’ll see it with the Buffalo Sabres. The man is truly one in a million.”

The son of Greek immigrants, Rigas was born in 1924 in an apartment above the Texas Hot, a downtown restaurant that is an institution in the Allegany County village of Wellsville. He was busing tables by the time he was nine.

Rigas was a good student and an athletic standout, earning recognition in the Wellsville High School Sports Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in football, basketball, baseball and track. (His hockey experience was limited to “an old tin can on an ice-covered pond,” Rigas told one interviewer. “Only once in a while could we get a real puck.”)

“Johnny” also ran errands for his hard-working parents, while helping neighbors and friends. It was the beginning of a tradition he has never abandoned, according to Bob Smith and many other Coudersport and Wellsville townspeople who have witnessed his generosity.

“That small-town restaurant environment was a wonderful training ground,” Rigas said in reminiscing about his youth. “The Texas Hot catered to all kinds of people—blue collar and professional—so I was exposed to a wide cross-section of the community.”

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Assigned to the Army’s Armored Infantry Division in WWII.


The family occasionally drove to Buffalo in their 1934 Reo for services at the Greek Orthodox Church.

Like so many young men of his era, John Rigas joined the military right after graduation and was assigned to the Armored Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in 1943. He saw combat duty in France and was later stationed in California, expecting deployment to Japan, when the war came to an end.

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The Coudersport Theatre, where Rigas’s business career began, still serves the community today.


Soon after returning to Wellsville, Rigas enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. The requirements of his chosen curriculum, engineering, were demanding. Rigas believes the discipline he was forced to exercise at Rensselaer served him well later on.

“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?’,” Rigas said. “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.”

Rewarded with a bachelor of science degree in management engineering, he returned home in 1950 and promptly found himself back at the counter and grill of the Texas Hot, where his father had hoped he would remain.

John Rigas had other aspirations. In 1951, he accepted an engineering position with the Sylvania corporation, which produced electronics components, and commuted more than 120 miles round-trip to Sylvania’s plant in Emporium, Pa.

In a tactic he later practiced on a much larger scale, Rigas also borrowed heavily from family and friends in the Greek community to purchase a movie theater in Coudersport, midway between Wellsville and Emporium. Days were spent at the Sylvania plant, evenings at the box office. Many nights, Rigas curled up on a cot in the theater to catch a few hours of shuteye before driving back to Emporium the following morning.

The theater never was much of a money-maker, but it did provide a springboard for John Rigas’s entry into the cable television business. A sales representative for one of the companies supplying his movies advised Rigas that he could corner the market on Coudersport’s entertainment business if he bought the community’s TV cable franchise.

Once again, it took some fancy financial footwork, but John Rigas emerged as a principal in the Coudersport TV Cable Company. He committed to an aggressive, albeit risky, construction plan and was eventually able to buy out his partners and team with his brother, Gus, to build Adelphia (named after the Greek word “adelphos,” which means brother).

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Doris Nielsen became the bride of John Rigas in 1953.


One of Rigas’s earliest employees, Angie Castano, smiled as she recalled the critical few months that would determine the success or failure of the fledgling company.

“John had decided it was time to expand, to acquire another cable system,” related Mrs. Castano. “He said, ‘Angie, I’m either going to go broke or I’m going to be a millionaire.’ He always kept his word and made good on his debts, and he always treated people decently and fairly. John is a real, live example that nice guys don’t always finish last.”

Early on, the Rigas brothers could see that the cable television industry was destined to explode. By establishing trust with other cable pioneers, borrowing heavily and buying suburban cable firms instead of city franchises, the Rigases built Adelphia into an industry giant.

With more than 1.9 million customers in 12 states, Adelphia is the biggest cable operator in South Florida and serves much of Western New York. Other major suburban markets include Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. In recent years, Adelphia has launched an aggressive rebuild of many of its cable systems, using state-of-the-art fiber optic technology. The company has also expanded into new product lines, including personal paging service, high-speed Internet access, long distance telephone service and more.

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Coudersport is considered by many to be a great place to raise children.
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Children (from left) Michael, Ellen, Tim and James.


One of the biggest Adelphia success stories of the 1990s has been the growth of its subsidiary, Hyperion Tele-communications Inc., a local exchange provider which has been going head-to-head with the Baby Bells in connecting customers to long distance carriers.
Behind these success stories has been John Rigas, who has seen each of his three sons bring their special skills into the company as executive vice presidents. John is proud that he and his wife, Doris, provided Ivy League educations for sons Michael, Tim and James, as well as the couple’s daughter, Ellen, a singer and producer with her own entertainment company in New York City.

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John (far left) at the counter of the Texas Hot, still a popular gathering spot in Wellsville.
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John Rigas guided the Rotary Club team to several winning seasons in Little
League Baseball. Author Paul W. Heimel standing second from left.
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Each of the three Rigas sons, from left to right: James, Michael and Tim,
brings special talents to the Adelphia organization.
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The Rigas family “gained a daughter” with the marriage of James
(second from left) to Dr. Mary Ann Prendville in 1990.


“My biggest joy is knowing that my sons have come back to join the company and remain in Coudersport,” John Rigas said. “It’s a wonderful tribute, and very gratifying to me.”

It’s also convenient for him, because he can see his three grandchildren, the sons of James and Dr. Mary Ann Rigas, a pediatrician, on an almost daily basis. It’s a welcome relief from the pressures of business, and the youngsters adore their grandpa.

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Ellen Rigas is a singer and producer with her own entertainment company in New York City.

True to his roots, Rigas remains active in alumni affairs at Rensselaer.


Another diversion is Rigas’s Wending Creek Farm, which has become one of the region’s agricultural showcases as a leading producer of corn, wheat, maple syrup, honey, Christmas trees and other products.

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Headquarters of Wending Creek Farms, one of the area’s agricultural showplaces.
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“Pa Poo”, Greek for grandfather, joins the fun in the
pumpkin patch.


“Mr. Rigas is very much involved with the day-to-day operations,” said Walt Ramsey, who manages Wending Creek Farms and regularly meets with Rigas to discuss everything from crop yields to employee training. “He takes a lot of pride in the farm.”

The influence of John Rigas and his cable company are felt throughout the Coudersport community. Adelphia employs over 600 people there, many of them in white-collar jobs, going about their duties in a former elementary school that Rigas purchased and renovated.
Adelphia and the Rigas family support virtually every worthwhile community activity and charitable cause. John Rigas actively encourages his employees to involve themselves in everything from the local Rotary International chapter to the community library. He leads by example, having served as a volunteer baseball coach, Chamber of Commerce president and active Rotarian for many years.

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The Rigas family (top row) Ellen, Mary Ann, James holding Andrew, John, Michael, Doris
and Tim (bottom row) John Michael and Christopher.


Each December, Rigas brings either the Buffalo or Rochester philharmonic orchestras for a holiday concert for employees and townspeople at the 1,200-seat Masonic Consistory, the town’s main auditorium. And the Coudersport Theatre remains open— at least on the weekends.

Last summer, the entire community honored its most popular benefactor by dedicating a renovated youth baseball diamond to him. Highlights of the John Rigas Field ceremony were aired locally on Empire Sports Network.

Rigas has served on the Board of Trustees at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., since 1984 and supports a variety of university activities; the Rigas Family Theater in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts is named for him.

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Calm and cordial, Rigas is a natural in front of any audience.

John with his mother, Eleni.


“Family is first and foremost in everything he does,” said St. Bonaventure University President Dr. Robert J. Wickenheiser. “He certainly is a model for our students to emulate, and I don’t just mean in business success, but in order to be successful in different sorts of ways.”

Adelphia has already established itself as a supporter of community activities throughout Western New York. Rigas expects that trend to continue as he and his family operate the Buffalo Sabres organization, at the same time Adelphia moves forward in its partnership with TCI to operate the city’s cable franchise and the Empire Sports Network.

“Buffalo is one of the great cities of America, and I have nothing but admiration for its hard-working people with great ethnic roots,” he pointed out. “With the Marine Midland Arena in place and a strong tradition upon which to build, I think there are good things ahead for the Buffalo Sabres and the city of Buffalo for many years to come.”

Colleagues often suggest that he move his company to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or another major city, where transportation would be easier and white collar workers might be more inclined to relocate. But John Rigas is having none of it.

“I grew up in a small town and I’m very comfortable here,” Rigas said. “I enjoy being around people of all sorts, sharing their success and their frustrations. I also feel an obligation to the area. The people of Coudersport were here when I needed them, so I want to do what I can to share Adelphia’s success with them.”

Paul W. Heimel is a freelance writer.
Photos courtesy of the Rigas family.

 

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