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William McGowan, 64, founder of MCI

Published Jun. 9, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

William G. McGowan, who as founder and chairman of MCI revolutionized the telephone business, died Monday of a heart attack, the company said. He was 64.

Mr. McGowan, who had suffered from heart disease for a number of years and underwent a heart transplant in 1987, turned MCI into the first major long-distance competitor to AT&T.

He took over Microwave Communications Inc. from its founder, Jack Goeken, in 1968 and built it from a company created out of dissatisfaction with AT&T's long-distance service between Chicago and St. Louis into today's multibillion-dollar international long-distance telephone corporation and the nation's second-largest long-distance carrier.

His life's cause was breaking the telephone monopoly held by AT&T, he often said.

"McGowan almost single-handedly popped the telephone monopoly," County Natwest analyst George Dellinger said late last year. "He got past the regulators, the industry, the lobbyists, and the courts."

Washington-based MCI filed an antitrust suit against the telephone giant in 1974 to break its monopoly on long-distance services.

The government backed MCI in the cause, and a decade later the world's biggest telephone company was split up. AT&T was forced to divest itself of regional Bell telephone companies that provided local service.

MCI then was able to compete on an equal footing with AT&T and the long-distance telephone wars took off in earnest, with MCI steadily grabbing shares of the market.

"Bill McGowan will go down in business history as one of America's foremost entrepreneurs," AT&T chairman Robert Allen said. "Probably more than any other single person, he helped to reshape the long-distance business from the monopoly that it had been for so long to the highly competitive industry that we know today."

Mr. McGowan, a heavy smoker for years, returned to the company after his heart transplant in 1987 and again underwent surgery last year. In December 1991, he stepped down as chief executive but retained the title of chairman.

The company did not immediately name a new chairman. When Mr. McGowan stepped aside as CEO, he was replaced in that capacity by president Bert C. Roberts Jr.

The son of a railroad engineer, Mr. McGowan put himself through Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., by working nights as a freight dispatcher. He went on to graduate from Harvard Business School.

He developed an early interest in computer companies and soon decided that computer technology could profitably parallel AT&T's network between big cities.

During his career, he often worked seven days a week. The company he built is now international in scope and, with 1991 revenues of $9.5-billion, stands second to AT&T among long-distance companies.