John D. Goeken, 80

John D. Goeken, co-founder of MCI, dies at 80

Mr. Goeken, who founded Airfone, was granted the FCC's first license for an airborne phone service.
Mr. Goeken, who founded Airfone, was granted the FCC's first license for an airborne phone service. (1984 Photo By Ray Lustig/the Washington Post)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Saturday, September 18, 2010

John D. Goeken, a radio repairman and son of a Lutheran minister who co-founded the telecommunications conglomerate MCI and earned the nickname "Jack the Giant Killer" for his early role in the lawsuit that dismantled AT&T's long-distance monopoly, died Sept. 16 at a hospital in Joliet, Ill. He was 80 and had esophageal cancer.

Mr. Goeken helped found a number of successful companies that revolutionized the way we communicate. At the time of his death, he was chairman and chief executive of Goeken Group Corp., an Illinois-based lighting technology and health-care information company.

Beneath Mr. Goeken's frumpy appearance -- he wore old business suits that were frayed and carried briefcases bursting with loose papers -- was a telecommunications genius who became one of the industry's most powerful innovators.

Besides MCI, Mr. Goeken's ventures included the largest computer network of its time -- connecting thousands of florists and aiding last-minute flower-senders across the country -- and the first commercially successful airplane telephone service.

In 1991, Business Week named Mr. Goeken "the best entrepreneur" and "the phone world's most prolific inventor."

Armed with a high-school diploma, Mr. Goeken founded Microwave Communications in 1963 with four friends who sought to create an independent radio network for long-haul truckers traveling between St. Louis and Chicago on U.S. 66.

Mr. Goeken used microwave technology that he had learned about while serving in the Army Signal Corps in the 1950s. The fledgling company first installed transmission equipment in Chicago, and it soon expanded into a nationwide communications network.

Early on, the business was often low on cash. In order to make hundreds of expensive photocopies for licensing hearings before the Federal Communications Commission, Mr. Goeken loosened his tie, rolled up his shirtsleeves and walked through the offices of a Washington law firm impersonating a Xerox machine attendant -- and copied his pages for free.

Later, when MCI needed to install a crucial antenna, construction workers were stopped by a widow who refused to let the hardhats onto her property. Mr. Goeken negotiated a deal -- and salvaged the antenna's construction -- by offering to personally decorate the microwave tower by the woman's home with Christmas lights each winter.

With his business partner William McGowan, Mr. Goeken waded into a legal battle with AT&T, filing an antitrust suit against the telecommunications giant in 1974. The lawsuit led to the dismantling of AT&T's monopoly, allowing MCI to become a competitor in the long-distance market.

Mr. Goeken resigned from MCI in 1974 because of differences over the company's direction. While other executives wanted to expand MCI's long-distance network, Mr. Goeken wanted to invest the firm's technology in untapped fields such as air-to-ground phone communication.

In 1975, Mr. Goeken founded Airfone, the first commercially successful pay telephone service on aircraft. In 1980, he was granted the FCC's first license for an airborne phone service. The convenient telephones went live in the mid-1980s, targeting business executives who could use the flight time to seal deals.

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