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Cable Guy

Bill Daniels made a fortune bringing cable to the West. But would he agree with how his legacy is being spent?

In 1937, Daniels's father was offered a job running a statewide insurance agency in Hobbs, New Mexico, an oil town in the southeastern corner of the state. The family quickly became a major presence in Hobbs, and Daniels spent his later teen years raising hell all over that part of New Mexico. Alarmed, and fearing that Bill might get into real trouble, his parents enrolled him in the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. Daniels thrived under the discipline and took up boxing.

Like other young men of his generation, Daniels was changed forever by the winds of war gathering over the Pacific Ocean. After graduating from the military institute, he enrolled in the Navy and trained to be a fighter pilot, graduating from flight school just two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Daniels shot down several Japanese fighters and helped save the lives of men on his ship -- the Intrepid -- after a kamikaze plane struck the aircraft carrier. He was later decorated for bravery. The Intrepid sits docked in the Hudson River just north of Times Square, serving as a monument and a museum.

Daniels was called up again during the Korean War, where nearly two-thirds of the men in his night-fighter squadron were either seriously injured or killed. He never liked to talk about his experiences during the war, and close friends believe his early exposure to mortality made him willing to take risks that would frighten others. It also gave the aggressive cable magnate a soft touch unusual in this Apprentice era.

CEO Hank Brown hosted the grand opening of the 
Daniels Fund's expansive Cherry Creek offices, then 
laid off one-third of the staff the following day.
James Glader
CEO Hank Brown hosted the grand opening of the Daniels Fund's expansive Cherry Creek offices, then laid off one-third of the staff the following day.
The Daniels Fund's expansive Cherry Creek offices.
James Glader
The Daniels Fund's expansive Cherry Creek offices.

When Daniels returned from Korea, he discovered that his brother, Jack, had already taken over the family insurance business in Hobbs. His father, Bob, an alcoholic, died in 1948, at the age of 54. So when the opportunity arose to sell insurance in Casper, Daniels headed north, vowing that his life would not be like his father's.

The emerging cable industry was tailor-made for Daniels. He liked underdogs, and for decades, cable was locked in battle with hostile broadcasters and regulators. Broadcast television stations saw cable as a rival that wanted to steal their programming and poach their viewers, and they leaned on lawmakers to rein in the upstart industry. Raising funding was a constant chore, as skeptical bankers questioned whether the new technology would last.

But Daniels was a one-man tour de force for cable. He had an uncanny ability to understand the new medium's potential, floating the concept of 24-hour news channels, pay-per-view movies and all-sports networks at a time when those ideas were as likely as flying a probe to Mars.

"I remember him telling me in the 1960s that one day you'd be able to buy groceries over the cable lines," says Kyla Thompson, a former Denver public-relations executive who knew Daniels for more than thirty years. "He was a true visionary."

Over three decades, Daniels & Associates became the premier brokerage for the cable-television industry, bringing together buyers and sellers and handling dozens of mergers and acquisitions. The company also contracted to run several cable systems, and Daniels was the largest owner of many of those systems, including the former Mile High Cablevision, which first brought cable to Denver. Because of Daniels, huge companies like TCI, United Cable and Jones Intercable were based here, as were the trade publications that served them. Hundreds of people came to Denver to work in the growing field, many of them lured here by Daniels himself. Sadly, in the years since Daniels's death, national companies have bought out almost all of the Denver-based cable companies.

As his wealth grew, Daniels looked for opportunities in his other passion: sports. He was the owner of the Utah Stars, which played for the now-defunct American Basketball Association and eventually went bankrupt. He also sponsored professional boxer Ron Lyle, was a minority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and one of the most enthusiastic backers of the fledgling ESPN sports network, which most of Wall Street dismissed as an expensive pipe dream.

Daniels's sponsorship of Lyle reveals a soft side that would eventually mean more to Denver than any of his business triumphs. In the late '60s, Lyle was serving time in prison at Cañon City for manslaughter. Daniels knew that Lyle had tremendous potential as a heavyweight boxer, and he helped him get paroled by promising him steady employment. He went on to sponsor Lyle all the way up to a big fight with Muhammad Ali in 1975.

Daniels made it clear that he was proud to help an ex-con succeed, and Lyle was one of hundreds of people who were indebted to Daniels. He was known to give $100 tips to waitresses in roadside diners and pay college tuition for employees' children. Everywhere Daniels went, it seemed he was constantly giving someone a loan or helping someone find a job.

Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck first met Daniels in 1974, when Daniels ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor and Schuck was running his campaign in El Paso County. "You only had to meet that guy once and you knew he was one of the most fabulous people who ever graced the earth," Schuck says.

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