Joe L. Allbritton, founder of Allbritton Communications, dies at 87

Joe L. Allbritton, the founder of Allbritton Communications, the parent company of ABC7, NewsChannel 8 and POLITICO, died Wednesday, just 17 days shy of his 88th birthday.

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

"Joe was, first and foremost, a beloved and loyal husband, father, grandfather and friend," his family said in a statement. "His life was defined by a love, wit, charm and attentiveness that will be forever cherished by all of us. Joe's life was also one of great achievement, as a businessman, innovator and philanthropist. He was fiercely passionate and unfailingly generous. He will be missed dearly."

Mr. Allbritton 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.

Mr. Allbritton learned the value of hard work as a child, earning a dollar a day for stirring orange juice at a local bottling plant.

“Somebody asked me if I came from great poverty. 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,” he said.

When Mr. Allbritton was in junior high, the family moved to Houston, where his father opened a cafeteria.

Young Mr. Allbritton 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Allbritton, "could charm the rattles off the back end of a rattlesnake."

After naval service during WWII and law school, Mr. Allbritton 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 Mr. Allbritton's business career. He went on to chair the Houston International Bank, Houston Citizens Bank and University Bankshares.

In 1975, Mr. Allbritton purchased The Washington Star along with its television station and smaller stations in the south.

In 1978, he sold the paper but kept the T.V. stations which became the foundation of the media empire that bears his name today.

Mr. 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.

And he never lost his sense of humor or his debating skills.

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

“Washington National Cathedral mourns the loss of a longtime friend in Joe Allbritton, a man who was instrumental both in building the Cathedral and in sharing its ministry with the world,” said The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral in a statement. “Canon Allbritton demonstrated his commitment to the Cathedral through his personal generosity and in broadcasting our Christmas services for several years on WJLA. The Cathedral will always remember him as faithful, generous and committed to this spiritual home for the nation. He and his family will be in our hearts and prayers now in Advent and as we prepare for Christmas, one of his favorite times of the year.”

Former first lady Nancy Reagan issued this statement on Allbritton's death:

"I was terribly saddened to hear of the death of Joe Allbritton today. Joe was a truly remarkable man. He did so much for so many worthy causes across our country and beyond our shores. Ronnie and I considered Joe and his wife, Barby, to be dear friends and I will miss his great sense of humor."