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Commentary: Writer Reflects on John Rigas Interview

By Christina Abt

Buffalo, NY – Two years ago this summer I embarked upon a back road country trip to the small town of Coudersport, Pa. My excursion centered on a magazine assignment to interview the then head of the Adelphia Communications Empire, John Rigas.

It took patience, time and an extended game of long distance phone tag to secure this interview. Adelphia had just completed a series of cable company acquisitions elevating the company to the third largest of its kind in the nation. Additionally the cable behemoth had recently committed to becoming the anchor point of Buffalo's waterfront development. Corporate life was running fast and hard at the Coudersport locale and Rigas and his executive assistant sons had little time for anything but business. Yet in the end, when the interview date was confirmed and the appointed hour arrived, John Rigas was the soul of decorum and charm throughout our shared three-hour question and answer session.

Our meeting began at Adelphia corporate headquarters in a revamped school building located at the far end of the quaint Pennsylvania town. Promptly I entered through the school days double doors whereupon I was escorted into John Rigas's personal office. Looking around, I was astounded by the wealth of plaques, awards, and photographs randomly stacked, floor to ceiling, extended to Rigas in appreciation for his charitable donations and thoughtful community acts. Prominently displayed in and around the good deed acknowledgments were family photos and mementos, obviously holding as great an import as any award within the haphazard collection.

When Rigas arrived, late but unruffled, he suggested that we travel to his working office on the outskirts of town. We caravaned in separate cars, a distance of about five miles and directly pulled into the driveway of a neatly kept farm complex. As we entered the property's main building I was immediately made aware of the extraordinary dimension of John Rigas's lifestyle as he introduced me to his personal chef. This was a man whose job it was to prepare daily meals for the entire Rigas family out of a kitchen space that could turn Emeril green with envy.

After savoring a sample of the chef's warm-from-the-oven, chocolate chip cookies, Rigas and I meandered into a nearby boardroom where we began our interview process. It would be two hours before we would re-emerge from his corporate cocoon, our conversation during that time touched on everything from raising children to raising millions.

Rigas noted the humble beginnings of his immigrant family upbringing which afforded him his sense of values and taught him the importance of family and of education. He proudly documented his sons' pivotal executive roles within the Adelphia Empire noting that he did not believe in making them pay their dues or work their way up within the company's corporate executivestructure. Rigas also documented with a wide-eyed innocence, the quantum leap he had taken in the world of corporate high rollers exclaiming that when he attended fancy dinners in New York City, the big bankers like Solomon Brothers actually knew his name.

Yet no matter what the topic we covered, one element of John Rigas's persona consistently rang through loud and clear. Despite all his wealth and acquired station, this son of Greek immigrant parents was the real deal. Quite simply a nice guy dedicated to his family and friends, with a great work ethic and a gut instinct that throughout his career, had consistently put him in the right place, at the right time.

As we concluded our interview Rigas insisted that we drive back to Coudersport together. He wanted to give me a personal drive-by tour of his home and the surrounding grounds. As we unceremoniously made our way along his long and winding driveway, past his immaculately groomed home, through the park-like estate encampment of three of his four children and their families, I was so struck by the grandeur of it all that I couldn't help but ask the cable magnate if he ever marveled at his affluent lifestyle? At which point the reed thin seventy five year old gentle man brought the car to a complete stop, turned his body toward me, looked directly in my eyes and unwaveringly gave the single word answer of, "Everyday."

It is that particular moment in time that continues to run through my mind as unremitting Adelphia worst case scenarios play out in newspapers and television stations across America. I wonder just how much of a hand John Rigas held in the unsavory financial dealings that are unraveling Adelphia before his very eyes? I also wonder how this man who so highly valued his ability to sustain a family, a town and a professional sports team through his corporate cable dream is surviving this public humiliation nightmare?

Finally, I wonder about two statements he made during our interview, the first one in tribute to his children as he acknowledged that Adelphia would not have raised to their high water mark corporate level so quickly were it not for his sons and their contributions. " The second, in retrospect, a somewhat eerie professional observation, wherein Rigas stated, and I quote, "I think if you believe in your cause, ultimately you will prevail. It will be painful and costly and in some cases downright disastrous, but ultimately the product that you believe in will win out."

Something tells me that as Adelphia and the Rigas Family teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and ruin, the answers to my questions will ultimately be found in the sad but true facts that at this point, John Rigas's excellent gut instinct and his family have both left him high and dry.

Christina Abt is a free-lance writer from Eden.