Joe L. Allbritton, founder of KATV's parent company, dies at 87

WASHINGTON (KATV) - Joe L. Allbritton, the founder of KATV parent company Allbritton Communications, died Wednesday, just 17 days shy of his 88th birthday.

Allbritton was the father of the company's current chairman and chief executive Robert Allbritton.

He was born in D'Lo Mississippi, on Dec. 29, 1924, in the company hospital of the timber company where his father ran the general store. He was the sixth of seven children.

Allbritton came from humble beginnings, earning a dollar a day for stirring orange juice at a local bottling plant.

"Somebody asked me if I came from great poverty," he recalled in a 1994 interview. "I said, 'No. I was born in D'Lo, Mississippi, and if you owned everything in the little town, there wouldn't have been enough to buy you a Greyhound bus ticket to Jackson."

When Mr. Allbritton was in junior high, the family moved to Houston, where his father opened a cafeteria where Joe cooked, washed dishes and manned the counter.

He also decided the cafeteria business wasn't for him.

In high school and later at Baylor University, Allbritton developed the debating skills that he used to great advantage in law school and in business. He earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from Baylor University, where he was celebrated as a national champion debater.

"The greatest thinker in the world gets stuck in his thought if he can't deliver it," he said.

A Houston friend said Allbritton "could charm the rattles off the back end of a rattlesnake."

After naval service during WWII and law school, he borrowed $5,000 to buy some land outside Houston.

When it came time to build the freeway connecting Houston to Galveston, the value of that land skyrocketed and so did Allbritton's business career. He went on to chair the Houston International Bank, Houston Citizens Bank and University Bankshares.

In 1970, he purchased The Washington Star along with its television station and smaller stations in the south. In 1978, he sold the paper but kept the TV stations, which became the foundation of the media empire that bears his name today. Allbritton also owned the Riggs bank from 1981 to 2004.

He and his wife Barbara were major contributors to scores of philanthropic, educational and artistic institutions, including Washington's Kennedy Center and Arena Stage. He has given to hundreds of charitable causes through the Allbritton Foundation, including Baylor Medical School, the Allbritton Art Institute, the Oxford Scholars, and the establishment of the International School of Law, which has become the George Mason Law School in Virginia.

"I remember when I was a boy, my father asked me if I was going to give a particular cause that was coming on. I said, 'Dad, I've only got a dollar.' He grabbed my arm and squeezed it and said, 'Son, if you won't give when you've got a dollar, you won't give when you've got a million'," he said.

"He was teaching me that giving was habit, and I've followed that through my lifetime."

Mr. Allbritton also made a name for himself in thoroughbred racing. In 1991, his 3-year-old horse, Hansel, won two legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and the Belmont.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and son, Robert, along with grandchildren Alex and Katherine.