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MCI founder John Goeken dead at 80

By Karen Hawkins
Associated Press Writer / September 17, 2010

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CHICAGO—John "Jack" Goeken, founder of telecom giant MCI and the father of air-to-ground telephone communication, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.

Goeken died Thursday at a hospital in his hometown of Joliet, according to Pat Schneider, a close friend and executive vice president of the Goeken Group Corp., a company he 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 at the time 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 for a 1994 profile. "Everybody comes in and says you can't do something, so I do it just to prove it."

He defied convention and was one of the founders of Microwave Communications Inc. in 1963, setting up a system of microwave towers to provide long-distance service between Chicago and St. Louis to compete with American Telephone & Telegraph Co.

The company went on to become MCI Communications Corp., the nation's second-largest long-distance telephone provider after AT&T. He left MCI in 1974 and two years later founded Airfone Inc., the first air-to-ground telephone service.

Always restless, Goeken went on to several other ventures after Airfone, and founded Naperville, Ill.,-based Goeken Group Corp. in 1995.

"To know Jack was to love him, because he always had a quick smile, a joke to share and a kind word," Goeken Group said in a statement. "He was very appreciative of the people around him."

Goeken was cracking jokes even on the day he died, making the friends and family assembled around him laugh, Schneider said.

"They don't make men like Jack, they just don't anymore," she said.

Goeken, an avid pilot and plane owner, offered his employees and their families flights during emergencies. If he couldn't fly them himself, he made sure to greet them at the airport, Schneider said.

Goeken was born on Aug. 22, 1930, in Joliet to the Rev. John Goeken, a Lutheran minister, and Signe Lydia Goeken. He started out fixing radios and television by trial and error as a senior 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.

Visitation will be Sunday and Monday at Fred C. Dames Funeral Home in Joliet. Memorial services will be held Tuesday at First Lutheran Church in Joliet.

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