- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 8, 2010

John Kluge, once listed as the wealthiest man in America, who built an investment in a radio station into a broadcasting empire that was the forerunner to Fox Television, has died. He was 95.

The University of Virginia said Wednesday that Kluge (pronounced KLOOG-ee) died Tuesday at his home near Charlottesville, Va.

In 1983, Kluge took Metromedia Co. private in a leveraged buyout and then sold off properties piecemeal for $4.65 billion, including the 1985 sale of seven big-city television stations to Rupert Murdoch for $2 billion. The stations, including ones in New York, Los Angeles, Los Angeles and Houston, served as the basis for Murdoch’s Fox television network.

Kluge personally netted more than $1.6 billion in the sales.

“I felt that television was going to change,” Kluge told Forbes magazine. “I just thought that it was going to get more competitive.”

The magazine in 1989, 1990 and 1991 labeled Kluge as the wealthiest man in America, with a net worth of more than $5 billion. Microsoft’s Bill Gates knocked him off the top spot in 1992, but Kluge was still listed by Forbes as the 35th richest American in 2009 with an estimated net worth of $6.5 billion.

Kluge also owned the Ice Capades and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, Playbill magazine and several other enterprises and was known for giving money away, donating to several causes, especially related to education.

In 2001, Kluge gave his 7,400-acre estate, including historic Morven Farm, 10 working farms and more than two dozen houses and modernized farm buildings, to the University of Virginia with the stipulation that he be able to live there until his death. The estate was valued at more than $45 million.

Kluge told the university to develop the core of the property for educational use and sell the surrounding properties to fund an endowment.

“He was one of the most charming and engaging individuals I have ever met. I was struck by his keen mind, his inquisitive nature and his extraordinary commitment to higher education,” university President Teresa Sullivan said in a statement. “John Kluge was a rare visionary whose interests spanned the arts, aid for minority students and innovative health care and who used his many gifts to help make the world a better place.”

For all his wealth, Kluge, who had immigrated to the United States as a child, was known to friends and acquaintances as easygoing and someone who wasn’t that interested in wealth. His late friend Alson H. Smith, a former member of the state House of Delegates, called him “just a regular guy” who would “talk about anything you want to talk about.”

Kluge attributed much of his success to gambling and luck.

“The greatest factor in my life, and I know entrepreneurial people don’t want to express it, they think it diminishes them, but luck plays a large part,” he told Forbes in a rare interview in October 1990.

Kluge got into broadcasting after serving in World War II, buying his first radio station in 1946.

Later he expanded into television, and his holdings, Metromedia Broadcasting, eventually grew into seven TV stations and 14 radio stations.

After the Fox buyout, Kluge got into cellular telephones and restaurants, among other businesses. He owned the Ponderosa Steak House, Bonanza and Steak & Ale chains. He also had a 70 percent stake in Orion Pictures.

He later sold his New York cell phone operations for more than $1 billion in cash and $850 million in stock.

Kluge resigned in 2002 as chairman of Metromedia International Group, but remained on the board.

Kluge “was more an intellectual businessman than a moneymaking businessman,” his third wife, Patricia, told The Washingtonian magazine in 1990. “He was more challenged by the creation of new ideas and new markets against all odds. … He took a small idea and turned it into something grand.”

Kluge said he kept his business thinking to himself “because I make changes in my own mind. It’s been a habit of mine to do that, not because I don’t want to look like I don’t make mistakes _ I make mistakes all the time _ but rather so that people around me don’t feel that every five minutes I’m changing my mind.”

In 1960, he presented President Eisenhower with a rare white tiger as “a gift to the children of America” for the National Zoo.

In 1991, he heard the story of a 9-year-old British boy, Craig Shergold, who had brain cancer that seemed untreatable after six unsuccessful operations. Kluge flew Shergold to the United States for a new type of operation at the University of Virginia Medical Center that removed virtually all of the tumor.

“If John Kluge hadn’t seen Craig in the newspaper, Craig would have been dead and buried in 1991,” his mother said years later. (The publicity about the boy stemmed largely from an unending avalanche of get-well cards sent him from well-wishers around the world.)

In 2004, Kluge pledged $1 million to create scholarships for now middle-aged people who were denied an education when public schools shut down in the late 1950s to avoid racial integration. The first recipients were named in 2005.

Kluge also donated more than $100 million to Columbia University, his alma mater, for minority scholarships and faculty diversity efforts, and $60 million to the Library of Congress.

“To me, philanthropy comes naturally because I know that when you pass out of this picture, you don’t take anything with you,” Kluge told Columbia College Today in 2004. “With the sands of time, we make very little difference, but what difference we can make we should try to make.”

Kluge was born in Chemnitz, Germany, on Sept. 21, 1914. His father, an engineer, moved the family to the United States in 1922 and they settled in Detroit. Kluge worked for a time on a Ford assembly line.

During the Depression, Kluge enrolled in Columbia and earned an economics degree in 1937. He worked in Army intelligence during World War II.

Kluge had three children from his marriages to Theodora Thomson, Tolanda Zucco and Patricia Rose Gay, which all ended in divorce. He later married Maria Tussi.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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