John Goeken dies at 80; founder of MCI

John "Jack" Goeken, a prolific entrepreneur who founded telecommunications giant MCI and pioneered in-flight telephone service, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.

Goeken died Thursday at a hospital in his hometown of Joliet, Ill., according to Pat Schneider, a close friend and executive vice president of the Goeken Group Corp., a company Goeken founded in Chicago's suburbs after leaving MCI.

Goeken is widely viewed as the father of air-to-ground telephone communication. As a founder of MCI and Airfone Inc., he sought to make communication possible anywhere people go — an idea that revolutionized the telecommunications industry.

He also won a reputation as "Jack the Giant Killer" because of his passion for busting up communications monopolies like AT&T.

"You do it because it's something you believe in," Goeken told the Associated Press in 1994. "Everybody comes in and says you can't do something, so I do it just to prove it."

He also founded the FTD Mercury Network, one of the world's largest data networks, which processes orders for the floral industry.

Goeken started Microwave Communications Inc. — the original name of MCI — in 1963 with a simple plan to increase sales at his two-way radio business in Joliet. He thought he could sell more two-way radios to truckers traveling between Chicago and St. Louis if he could build microwave towers to serve the route.

But AT&T and four other communications companies regarded his plan as competition and filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission to stop him. Goeken and his four partners put up a total of $3,000 to cover legal fees, but the money was quickly exhausted. One by one, his partners dropped out, leaving Goeken to fill the David role in the battle against the telecom Goliaths. As the legal fight dragged on through the 1960s, Goeken was so broke that he used tape to keep the soles of his shoes from flapping loose.

Despite the long odds, MCI grew into a national network and rival AT&T lost its monopoly.

In 1974, Goeken left MCI in a dispute with William G. McGowan, the financier he brought in to serve as chairman in the company's early years. The next year he created FTD Mercury, and in 1976 he founded Airfone Inc., the first air-to-ground telephone service, which used analog technology. He sold Airfone to GTE in 1986 and, after successfully maneuvering to void a non-compete agreement, created In-Flight Phone Corp., which in 1994 became the first company to employ clear-sounding digital phones on airplanes.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Goeken was born in Joliet on Aug. 22, 1930. He started out fixing radios and TVs by trial and error as a high school student. He continued his education in the Army Signal Corps in the early 1950s but had no college training in electronics. He later received honorary degrees from the University of New Hampshire, Drexel University and Lewis University.

Goeken is survived by his wife of 59 years, Mona Lisa Goeken; two children, seven grandchildren, one great-grandchild and two sisters.