Joe Lewis Allbritton, founder of KTUL Tulsa's Channel 8's parent company, was remembered Tuesday for his philanthropic contributions and devotion to his family.
"I really loved the guy. He was happy. He was fun. He was warm," former Secretary of State James Baker said during a memorial service at Washington's National Cathedral for Allbritton, who died last month at 87. "He loved art, but he also loved the art of the deal."
The hour-and-a-half service for the founder of Allbritton Communications, drew hundreds of D.C.'s political and media elite. Among them were Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader and Bill Clinton confidante, and former CNN executive Tom Johnson.
Speakers described Allbritton's humble roots in the small town of D'Lo, Mississippi. After the Depression his family left for Houston, where Allbritton built his fortune in the decades after World War II. He bought the struggling Washington Star in the 1974, which gave him a foothold in the Capitol region. In 1981, he took control of the storied Riggs Bank.
Allbritton's philanthropy left a big mark on the D.C. region, speakers said. Nathan Baxter, now Bishop of the Episcopal Church's Central Pennsylvania Diocese, credited Allbritton with helping to save the National Cathedral.
The church fell into debt in the late 1970s and was "at the door of foreclosure," Baxter said. Allbritton joined the cathedral's board, oversaw an audit, and then reached out to creditors to arrange and finance a promissory note.
"In 1984, in the office of Joe Allbritton, the mortgage was burned," said Baxter. "Just think of it: today we could be sitting in this place, which might be the Unification Church's Cathedral … or it could be the East Coast Center of Scientology."
For his help, the National Cathedral bestowed its highest honor — installing him as an honorary canon.
"Joe remained a Baptist, although he behaved like an Episcopalian and he gave to the Catholics," said Jordan. "So Joe could have walked through several gates to heaven."
Among the figures who attended the service were Washington Post Co. Chairman Don Graham, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, former Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, Fox News' Bret Baier and ABC's Jon Karl. Sir Peter Westmacott, Britain's ambassador to the United States, attended at the request of Prince Charles.
Allbritton loved his jet, and he enjoyed giving rides to friends. Jordan recalled flying with Allbritton, who also owned race horses, to the Kentucky Derby in the early 1990s. The race was at 4 p.m., and they were back in Washington by 6:30 p.m. eating dinner at the Jockey Club. They left so fast that someone had to mail Jordan the money he won betting.
"Joe was not one to sit still," Jordan said.
Johnson, the former president of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, said he'll miss Allbritton's "eccentricity and spontaneity." Like that time that he asked Dean Singleton – then a lieutenant, now chairman of MediaNews – to meet him at the airport for a spur-of-the-moment flight to an undetermined destination.
He told the pilot of his jet to just fly west. They stopped in North Dakota for a steak dinner and spent the night. Then they headed toward Los Angeles but stopped in Las Vegas instead.
"At times, Joe needed to get away to clear his head and to think," said Johnson. "Joe believed that people may forget what you said, they may forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel. I miss the way Joe made us feel."
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