John Goeken earned his nickname, “Jack the Giant Killer.” In 1974, he filed an antitrust suit that challenged AT&T’s grip on the long-distance telephone market and ultimately led to the breakup of “Ma Bell.” He also pioneered in-flight telephone service and built the computer network linking FTD florists. “Everybody says you can’t do something,” he told an interviewer in 1994, “so I do it just to prove” you can.
The son of a Lutheran minister, Goeken grew up in Joliet, Ill. A serial entrepreneur, he sought “to make communication possible anywhere people go,” said the Los Angeles Times. He entered the telephone business through a venture that sold two-way radios; he figured he could sell more radios to truckers plying the route between Chicago and St. Louis if he could provide them with uninterrupted contact with their headquarters. He did so by building a series of microwave transmission towers along the route to extend the radio signals’ range. But AT&T regarded Goeken’s makeshift network, dubbed Microwave Communications Inc., as unwelcome competition and petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to stop him. Goeken fought back, though the legal fight left him so broke that at one point “he used tape to keep the soles of his shoes from flapping loose.”
Having established MCI as a legitimate telecommunications competitor to AT&T, Goeken left the company in 1974 in a dispute with William McGowan, an executive he had brought in to raise money for the firm, said The New York Times. He went on to found Airfone, the first in-flight phone service, which he championed despite industry suspicions “that executives would not want to make calls from the air.” He also built the FTD Mercury network, which florists use to wire orders around the world. His latest venture, which he was working on at the time of his death, was a company developing energy-efficient lighting systems to replace incandescent bulbs.