Interview Date: Thursday January 13, 2000
Interview Location: Rutherfordton, NC
Interviewer: Marlowe Froke
Collection: Hauser Collection
MARLOWE FROKE: Richard Loftus is one of the most widely known people in the cable television industry. Part of that is because he has been with the industry since the very, very early years. Another part of it is that he has covered almost aspect of the industry itself from the engineering and the technology side to operations to public policy to regulatory to legal to marketing, programming. You name it, and Dick, at some point or another, has been involved in that aspect of the cable industry. So he brings, then, to his perspectives on cable, a wealth of experience that has given him a reputation that is sought by people throughout the world.
We’re with Dick at his new venture which is West Point Farm, just outside of Rutherfordton, North Carolina. West Point Farm is in North Carolina, the beautiful western part of the state, not too far from Ashland. Dick has one of the most spectacularly beautiful resort areas that he is developing on his own, now that he has retired, at least partially from the cable industry.
Can you tell us just a little bit about how you got into West Point Farm, Dick?
LOFTUS: Well, I’m a city boy, city born and bred, so I always wanted to have land – a farm. I loved the western part of North Carolina. I loved the climate here. I loved the people. So when I settled here, I started looking. Serendipitously, I found this farm—90 acres, 1,800 feet on the Broad River – that goes from the river bottom all the way up to about 1,000 feet in elevation. The vegetation is farm. It’s an old farm, was a cotton farm. I’ve now got pasture areas sowed in corn and soybeans. There’s a lot of wood, pine – white pine, jack pine – and a lot of hardwoods – maple, hickory, some birch, oak of course. I’ve developed a facility here that is eclectic. I found two old cabins in Virginia. In what is almost like the ultimate recycling process, took them down, dismantled them, brought them down here to North Carolina and reconstructed them here on the site.
FROKE: So what you have is a very unique – well it is a unique …
LOFTUS: It’s a ‘uniquity.’”
FROKE: Yes. That does a bit for the history of the country as well as an opportunity to move away from one’s regular life routine and find something that is very, very relaxing and very, very enjoyable.
LOFTUS: It’s a real place to get away to—rustic, bucolic, peaceful, enjoyable. There’s recreation available. It’s just truly an enjoyable place.
FROKE: Dick is seated in a swing on the porch of one of two of the houses that he assembled. If you look carefully off to the background, you will notice the timbers that were brought from Virginia and were assembled, timber by timber, here in West Point Farm. One of the houses dates back to 1746, and another house dates back to 1858.
Dick, what we’re going to do is interrupt you now for just maybe five minutes and give you and Lori, your wife, an opportunity to give us a tour of West Point Farm.
LOFTUS: Great. I’d love to.
FROKE: Back now for the history of Richard W. Loftus, a project that is conducted by the National Cable Television Center and Museum through the generosity of Gustav M. Hauser, the Hauser Foundation.
Dick, you were born in Washington, D.C. Is that right?
LOFTUS: I was born in a taxi cab in Washington, D.C. at 18th and Pennsylvania Avenue on December 23, 7:00 in the morning, 1938 and my father was driving it.
FROKE: And you haven’t stopped since.
LOFTUS: I haven’t stopped since. The only thing I think that could have been different, I could have been born in a revolving door.
FROKE: What was the profession or occupation of your father?
LOFTUS: He was a cab driver.
FROKE: He was a cab driver in Washington?
LOFTUS: Yes. I was told that story by my mother when I was eleven years old. I had had an argument with my father and I said, “Why is he mad at me?” I used to have a lot of arguments with my father. She told me the story about being born in the cab. She said, “You know, Richard, I don’t think he’s ever forgiven either one of us for the mess we made.” So that’s where I learned the story. She tells me that she got to the hospital – Columbia Hospital – which she was heading to. It’s at 24th and Pennsylvania Avenue. My mother was a nurse, and she said, “Bring me a sterile towel and a wheelchair. This one’s here already.”
FROKE: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
LOFTUS: I have one older brother. He’s three years older than I am. He is an attorney, as I am. He practices law in Warrington, Virginia.
FROKE: Were your father and mother natives of the United States, born in the United States?
LOFTUS: My mother and father were born in the United States in the area around Scranton, Pennsylvania – my father in Scranton and my mother in a town called Old Forge which is right outside of Scranton. Both of their parents, however, were Irish immigrants.
FROKE: And they came in the early 1800’s?
LOFTUS: They came in the late 1800s. My parents were born here in the early 1900s – my father in 1905 and my mother in 1909. Their parents had emigrated here from Ireland in the 1890s.
FROKE: And that was during one of the food crises in Ireland?
LOFTUS: Yes, the European food crisis, a period of time when there was famine in Ireland. Originally they came to Canada, and then they came down from Canada separately. My mother was a Keough, and my father Loftus, of course. Both of their families migrated at the same time, but not on the same boat or not on the same train. My grandfather (my father’s father) went to work for the Lackawanna Railroad, and my mother’s father was a pharmacist in Old Forge, Pennsylvania.
FROKE: Religion has been a very significant part of your lie. Did that obviously begin with your mother and father, then?
LOFTUS: Yes. I was born Catholic, as they say. They were Irish Catholic, and I was raised Catholic, educated Catholic. I went to a Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, Catholic college, and Catholic law school. So I’ve had a very Catholic education. I have a very deep understanding of the Catholic faith and the Christian faith as a result of that.
FROKE: When I say that religion is a strong part of your life in the way that you conduct yourself, I believe that I’m being factual because it goes beyond a strong sense of ethics, which you have.
LOFTUS: Well, thank you. I think that we have an absolute moral responsibility to do what’s right and to seek out the opportunity to do what’s right and do it. I don’t think you can just sit back and not go and do things.
FROKE: You went to St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York. There would have been other Catholic universities, so to speak, that you could have gone to. Why did you choose St. Bonaventure?
LOFTUS: That’s a curious thing. I went to a wonderful high school called Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. It’s the best high school in the country. I say that, and I’m going to make an anecdote out of it. My oldest daughter, in her freshman year at Loyola College in New Orleans, when she was there they had a freshman orientation and started talking about where they went to high school. One boy spoke up and said, “I went to the best high school in the country.” And she said, “That’s what my father always says.” And the kids said, “Well, I don’t know where your father went, but I went to Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C.” My daughter said, “That’s where he went!” That was a Jesuit school and tough, a tough regimen and a good school. Four years of Latin, two years of Greek, etc., and a lot of discipline and athletic competition. A guy who was in my class a lot of people know – Pat Buchanan. He was a classmate of mine. Another guy was a couple of years behind me was pretty well-known too – Ed Bennett, the author and former Education Secretary.
I went to work for a couple of years after high school. My family was poor, relatively, and I saved my money. I was looking around for a place where I would go to college because that’s what I aspired to do. A friend of mine touted me on St. Bonaventure. He said that it would be a very different experience and that I ought to go, look the place over, and think about it. So I did. I bought a train ticket and took the train to Olean, New York, and went to visit the college, and I fell in love with the place, the spirit that was there, the concept of education that was there and the sincerity of it. St. Bonaventure was one of those schools that you have to want to go to. You just don’t walk into it. You just don’t walk by it. It’s in a place that is a place that you have to go to. I felt called there. I felt like I really would go there and could really devote myself to getting a good education at a place that had a lot of good spirit and had a fine academic reputation and a fine athletic reputation. It had a very good basketball school, at the time. The weather was not too congenial with harsh winters in the snow belt of Western New York State. But from the moment that I got off the train in Olean, I remember going out Route 17 and seeing the school come up, and I said, “This is the place for me to go to college” and I never regretted it. It was a great school.
FROKE: You majored in literature.
LOFTUS: Majored in English literature, minored in philosophy and history with math and some physics.
FROKE: What do you regard as the most significant parts of your education from St. Bonaventure?
LOFTUS: There was a constant sense of learning, a constant sense of turning the page. You move on. You move from step to step to step. If it’s literature, English literature, you start with “Beowulf” and you go all the way to that book that was published yesterday. Words, thoughts, impressions in a relatively tight environment, not a big campus, not a lot of students. There were students from all walks, from other countries and things like that. But there was always this sense that this is a place where you can learn. Really, the process of learning is teaching yourself. We had professors or other teachers who lead you, but they lead you to learn. So the place really impressed me with that, and I pursued learning.
FROKE: So it was an education that deliberately related the past to the present and also, then, gave you a sense of independence.
LOFTUS: You said it better than I did, yes.
FROKE: I didn’t say it as well as you did, but I summarized with a few pragmatic words.
LOFTUS: I have a certain reputation for verbosity.
FROKE: From St. Bonaventure—and I’ll just mention this in passing and then we’ll go into it in more detail at a later time—you had your first encounter with cable in Olean.
LOFTUS: I had to work.
FROKE: So those two years that you worked before you went to St. Bonaventure were not adequate to cover you financially.
LOFTUS: No. No. I worked my way through high school. But no, I worked. I needed to work, and I did work. One of the jobs I had was tending bar in a little hotel, the Burton Hotel, in Allegheny, New York, which was not much of a hotel but it was a hell of a bar.
FROKE: And I should say that he makes the best Manhattans, and I consume them.
LOFTUS: Once you’re taught how to concoct, you concoct. So I was working in this bar. Most of it was a shot and beer type of bar, a college bar mostly. It was a March day. As is not unusual in that part of the world, a snowstorm came up - a snow squall – in March. All of a sudden, into the bar come walking these guys. They’ve got all this rig on them, and they’re clinking and clanking and clinking and clanking and clinking and clanking. They came in and were cussing because they couldn’t work in the snowstorm. They sat down and commenced to drink a few beers and order hamburgers and stuff like that. I started talking with them and jawing with them. What they were doing is they were expanding the cable television system from Olean into Allegheny, New York, and upgrading it from five channels to seven channels.
FROKE: Did you have any awareness of cable at that time before they came into the bar?
LOFTUS: Other than the fact that I’d heard about it, but I had never seen it. I had never seen a cable television picture. This was 1960. Television was big, but it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today, and I was raised in the age of radio and I never spent much time watching television.
FROKE: So it was your natural curiosity with these two people that came into the bar, to learn more about cable and what their business was.
LOFTUS: Well, not only that, but Ray Muldy, who owned the bar, was paying me $.80 an hour. They told me I could earn $1.80 working with them on the poles. Well, no contest! I took off the apron and said “I’ll see you around, Muldy.” What they were doing was when you build a cable system, you’re on the utility company poles. There’s a thing called “framing the poles,” making them ready. The cable was put on the poles by an attachment that’s a hook. Then there’s a piece of strand, a metal strand, that’s put into that hook, and then the cable is latched onto that piece of strand, that piece of metal. That’s how it hangs out there. So my job was to climb the pole and drill the hole and put the bolt in while the other guys were following behind me to put up the strand. I didn’t get paid the $1.80 an hour. I got paid per pole.
LOFTUS: So I thought that was a little bit of a thing. But I wound up climbing an awfully lot of poles very fast. I learned something the very first day. A guy named Greg Tobin, from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, took me out and taught me how to climb a pole with a belt in cold, icy weather. You don’t climb the dry side of the pole. You put your belt up against the dry side of the pole and you kick off the ice with your hooks because that belt is what’s going to save your life and keep you up there and keep you holding you straight. If you go around and you put it on the icy side of the pole, you’ll lose your thing.
FROKE: You’re going to slide down.
LOFTUS: There’s an awfully lot of guys with an awful lot of scars who climbed the wrong side of the pole. That was the first lesson that Greg Tobin taught me was not only how to climb, but how to climb safely.
FROKE: And how to make the installation safely.
LOFTUS: And again, this was a hand bit that you drilled in with. You didn’t have a nice, easy battery operated drill. The power that was up there when you would work on poles that had cable on them, was AC. There were tubes and these huge amplifiers, and it was a totally different experience. Here I was – I came from Washington, D.C. where I would go back to Washington where we had the rabbit ears with the aluminum foil hanging off from them. We’d get two or three or four channels of ghosts in the apartment house we lived in in Washington. And there are these people in Allegheny, New York – they’re getting seven channels of television: New York City, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, color, and …
FROKE: And it was clear.
LOFTUS: It’s a beautiful television picture. I’m sitting there saying, “Something’s going to happen.” This cable TV system in 1960 was owned by a man by the name of Bill Daniels, was run by a guy, managed by a guy by the name of Alan Harmon. Bill Daniels is, of course, known as the “father of cable,” is one of my great heroes. I love him dearly and he is a wonderful human being. He didn’t even know it, but he got me started and introduced me to cable TV. I earned a good living. I then started traveling around and doing installations for other cable TV people in other places around upstate New York, and drops and things like that. I kept a good interest in the business.
FROKE: Did you ever convert the unit-cost pole to an hourly wage? Did it turn out to be about $1.80 an hour?
LOFTUS: It turned out to be about $4.20 an hour because I climbed fast!! I’ll tell you, I was one upset boy the day that I ran out of poles. I’m out there saying, “I’ve never made so much money in my life. Look at this stuff.” And they’re paying me for poles, and I’m up the poles. They’re happy. They don’t have to climb. They didn’t like to climb. Get this scrawny little college kid climb up the pole for us. No, I was making money. Then all of a sudden, okay, yeah, I show up. I got the belt on and the hooks and they go, “That’s it.”
FROKE: In your first encounter then with the cable industry, you demonstrated entrepreneurship which is one of the characteristics that the cable folks talk about as being a part of their industry, a part of their unique business relationship to the country.
LOFTUS: I also had a great experience at the same time. A cable TV engineer by the name of Fred Coryell came to St. Bonaventure. He came to a physics class, and he held in his hand a little thing, and he said, “This is going to change mankind more than moveable type.” The philosopher in me said, “Come on now. Are you Mr. Guttenberg or something?” He was holding a transistor.
FROKE: Okay, okay, okay.
LOFTUS: He went on to explain the nature of solid state technology and what that could do and how it could do it. To a 19 year-old young man at the time, the quantum physics nature of that just blew me away. It was hard enough understanding radio frequency and the transmission of electronic, magnetic spectrum and the power factors of amplifiers and how you could take electricity and modify electricity and modulate and create pictures and sound and send it somewhere. You could broadcast it. And then also you could take it and you could put it onto a cable and a wire and you could transport it. Today it’s so de rigeur.
FROKE: You left that presentation believing him, then?
LOFTUS: I left that presentation overwhelmed. I said, “This is really an extraordinarily exciting thing.” The man was right. He was talking about the fact that, for example, the cable TV amplifier itself used, in 1960 dollars, per amplifier, about $7 a month in electric costs. He said that cost could be reduced to $.07 just by deploying solid state technology as opposed to the powered amplification process. And it has! Look at this TV camera that we’re looking at here. It’s not even the size of a half a cigar box. It has been within that last 40 -year period of time that this extraordinary explosion in technology has taken place since the invention of that transistor.
FROKE: In the early 1960s then, he was foreseeing digital communications.
LOFTUS: I don’t know if he had digital, but he certainly … Solid state came from digital. He certainly saw solid state analog.
FROKE: But whether he went farther …
LOFTUS: You were still in the days of the UNIVAC computer and everything else. I think there were still tubes. The real world that you were living in was high-powered electricity. It was exciter tubes and things like that.
FROKE: With the enthusiasm that you generated then from that presentation and then also from your economic status where you did not have money, how did you take your next step, which was a law degree, in your education? How did you put that together?
LOFTUS: I graduated from St. Bonaventure.
FROKE: How did you put it together now to go on to law?
LOFTUS: I always wanted to be a lawyer.
FROKE: Okay, okay.
LOFTUS: I’ll tell you the reason. I had an uncle, my Uncle Mike Keogh, who was a lawyer. He had a Cadillac car. He had a nice house on Garfield Street. He had a cottage in Rehoboth, Delaware. His daughters were debutantes. He had parties. My brother and I, with my mother and father, grew up in a little two-room apartment in northwest Washington. So I had an economic incentive.
FROKE: You were introduced to class structures very early.
LOFTUS: I was introduced to that, and he was like a W. C. Fields type of uncle, you know. “I love you as much as any man can love a nephew.” He gave me occasional encouragement, but he said, “I’m teaching you, Richard. I’m teaching you by example.” He was the first man who ever really confronted me with that and said to me directly. It’s like the idea that if you give a person a fish, he’ll eat the fish, but if you teach him how to bait the hook, he’ll be able to feed himself all his life. And he said that to me. He said, “You know, I can give you money. But that’s not going to help you.” You’ve got to accept the fact that he was born as an immigrant and he made it. “It’s out there for you to make it. It’s the United States of America, the world is yours. Go out there and get after it. It’s the greatest country in the world. It’s free. You can do it. You’ve got a good mind. You’ve got a good body. You’ve got your health. Go get it.” And he encouraged me to do that. And he said, “By the way, what I’ve got, I’m keeping.” I’m making him out to be a lot worse than he was, but he did encourage me that way. He did not indulge in largesse, but a lot of encouragement and positive reinforcement – to ‘yeah, go get it, kid.’
So I did what he did. I went to Georgetown Law School at night, which is what he did. I worked. I sold printing equipment and supplies and machinery. Then I went and took a job in the court system. I was a bailiff in the Court of General Sessions. I clerked to judges. Then I got a position in the United States Attorney’s office. David Acheson, Dean Acheson’s son, was my D.A. When I was at St. Bonaventure, I had worked on John F. Kennedy’s primary campaign. So when Bobby Kennedy became Attorney General, I was able to parlay a certain amount of those connections into an appointment as special assistant to the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. I served in that capacity for a little bit more than a year. When the president was shot, when President Kennedy was shot, David Acheson was my D.A., and I was his special assistant. He left to go to Secret Service – to the Treasury Department – to reorganize Secret Service. I could have gone with him and been a T-man, but I had had a run-in with the new D.A. who came in, and he invited me to leave. Curiously enough, at that same point in time, I had written an article for the law journal, called “Cable and Copyright – the Coming Crisis.” If you would take that article today and change portions of it, you could make it “Cable and Copyright – the Continuing Crisis.” The issue had been joined, at that point in time, and cable had come into the purview, if you will, of the legal community because of the controversy over copyright. So I had that published. I took it to the National Cable Television Association that was on the 5th floor of 15th and H Street in the National Press Headquarters Building. A man by the name of Bob LaRue was general counsel. A man named Edward Whitney was president.
FROKE: He was the first president.
LOFTUS: He was the first paid president.
FROKE: All right.
LOFTUS: Bill Daniels recruited him from Western Airlines in Denver. Marty Malarkey, I think, was the first president, but he was not paid. He was pro bono. Ed Whitney was the first paid president of the NCTA. They had a mimeograph machine, which is a printing process, in the hallway. A girl by the name of Beverly Murphy was the secretary. So that was the NCTA . The National Cable Television Association was Ed Whitney, Bob LaRue, and Beverly Murphy. I walked in and had this article, “Cable and Copyright – the Coming Crisis” and they put out a bulletin on a monthly basis or weekly basis or whatever. I wanted to get it published. Bob LaRue read it and immediately co-authored it by making changes. Then he assigned it to Beverly Murphy and told her to type it up and put it out. She said, “I can’t do that because the mimeograph machine is broken.”
One of the jobs I had between high school and college was a printer. So I said, “I can take a multilith machine apart in my sleep. It’s like an M-1 rifle. I’ll fix it.” So I went out in the hall, and I took the mimeograph machine apart, …
FROKE: Got all purple ink over you.
LOFTUS: Ink all over me and everything else, but I fixed it. Then Beverly Murphy typed up the article. I stood there with her, ka-ching, ka-ching. It was a hand crank machine. Through that curious beginning and then through my brother who had met a man named Robert McGehan. In law school we had an investment group. We were night school guys. There were guys in the patent office, guys who were accountants, all college graduates. We were all in night school. We all put a couple of bucks together and we had an investment club. I told these guys, “One of the things we ought to look into is this cable TV thing because it’s…” So one of my study group guys, Jimmy Proctor, was an accountant. He was working for Cooper Brothers, Lybrand, Lawson, Montgomery. He said that they were auditing the books of a company called Entron, that there was an investment looking to be made into the company by the Boston Herald Traveler Company.
FROKE: It was one of the early manufacturing …
LOFTUS: It was the company that I had climbed the poles for in …
FROKE: Okay, okay.
LOFTUS: … in Olean/Allegheny, New York.
FROKE: All right.
LOFTUS: They were up there putting in this cable system, and they had the general contractor. Then there was a subcontractor, but it was Entron equipment that I had worked with. I had changed tubes in it and done all sorts of stuff, hauled it up. So I said, “I know that company – Entron. They had the equipment up in Allegheny, New York.” So long story short, we invested about $200 which was a lot of money to us at that time. It was probably about half of our entire investment club funds – Delta Theta Phi – legal fraternity. So we invested. I convinced them. I said, “This is good income.” So we did which, Entron, when we bought it was 1 7/8 - $1.78 per share. Of course one of the guys was a broker…so we bought the stock. Well, the deal with Boston Herald Traveler went through, next thing you know, the stock’s up to $8.00 a share. Everybody said, “Let’s sell this stuff!” I said, “I don’t want to sell out my piece of it.” They said, “Okay.” I got ten shares and they sold off most of the other stuff and had a beer party.
My brother invites me to go over to this guy’s house one day. I go over to this man’s house and the new D.A. has invited me to leave – “Please leave. I want you to go.” And I went over to Mr. McGehan’s house. We get talking, and Mr. McGehan asked me what I’m doing. I said, “I’m special assistant to the U.S. Attorney, District of Columbia.” I said, “What do you do?” He says, “Well, I run an electronics company.” I said, “Oh, what kind of electronics?” He says, “Well, you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s something people don’t have around Washington here – it’s called cable TV.” I said, “I heard of cable television. I know what cable TV is.” He says, “You do?” I said, “Yes. What’s the name of your company?” He says, “Entron.” I said, “Entron? Not only do I know your company, number one, I used to work for you – in a manner of speaking – through one of your subcontractors climbing poles up in Allegheny, New York putting in your LHR 1 amplifiers.” He looked at me. I said, “Not only that, if you go back and check the books, the records of your company, I’m one of your shareholders. So what are you going to do for me today?” That was about 4:00-4:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon. 11:00 that night, in the Entron plant in Silver Spring, Maryland, I became assistant to the president of Entron.
FROKE: Was this after you had earned your law degree? Very close?
LOFTUS: I had earned my law degree. I had the privilege of arguing cases because of my position in the U.S. Attorney’s office, but I had not passed the bar. I passed the bar a few months later.
FROKE: In Maryland.
LOFTUS: In Maryland.
FROKE: Getting back to Entron at a later point in our conversation, did you practice general law?
LOFTUS: One of the first things …
FROKE: In the Attorney General’s office it was criminal law.
LOFTUS: I prosecuted. I put people in jail, including Gus Hall of the Communist Party. I generally associated with cases … but also did civil. I did a lot of civil pleadings. But most of my efforts were criminal.
FROKE: And then even though you did get licensed in Maryland, you really did not practice law in a general sense? Your cable career was moving ahead so fast that—
LOFTUS: Other than the fact that, well as …
FROKE: You applied it.
LOFTUS: I applied it every day. It’s interesting that law is really … The study of law is a study in the procedure and analysis. It’s amazing it produces so few analytical thinkers. It really is a study in analysis, and it was taught to me that way. Georgetown was a case study program law school. You studied by case. You were taught by case. The question was always asked, “How would you do it differently?” And you were graded in a competitive way. We started in my freshman class at Georgetown Law School with 400. We graduated 92. Look to your right, look to your left, look to the guy in front of you, look to the guy in back of you – because only one of you is going to make it. Only one of you is going to graduate. You had competitive grading and you had to argue against each other in class. When you get guys who are really up on it, and you’ve got a contest with them…but it was a good experience and something I used from the first day I walked into Entron. Here was Bobby Readen who was in charge of construction. Bobby Readen from Bilton, Alabama, who was a boot-kicking engineer, a technical guy, in charge of construction. He knew how to construct a cable system. There was a guy named John Leon