Bill Daniels

  • Hometown: Denver, Colo.
  • Sex: Male
  • Alma Mater: New Mexico Military Institute
  • Religion: Protestant
  • Era: 20th Century
  • Source of Fortune:
    • Telecommunications
  • Philanthropic Focus:
    • Economic Opportunity
    • Free Enterprise
    • K-12 Education
    • Sports
    • Substance Abuse
    • Youth

Bill Daniels was a pioneer of the cable TV industry and a major philanthropist in Denver and the Rocky Mountain region. Throughout his life, his charitable giving ranged widely. He reached out to those down on their luck, those who abused alcohol and drugs, and those who suffered from mental and physical disabilities. He provided scholarships, with a focus less on academic achievement and more on demonstrated character and leadership potential. He funded efforts to integrate ethics into business schools and created a bank meant to teach young people the principles of finance—and personal responsibility. Through it all, his giving was largely personal; Daniels routinely enclosed a note with each check, explaining to the recipient what he hoped his money would do.

Born in 1920, Robert William Daniels Jr. grew up in Hobbs, New Mexico. The rowdy, rough-and-tumble Daniels needed discipline, and he found it at the New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI). Daniels entered the Navy after graduating from NMMI and became a highly decorated aviator, serving in combat at Guadalcanal, Midway, and the Coral Sea.

In 1952, after serving in the Korean War, Daniels moved to Casper, Wyoming, where he made the discovery that would make his fortune. The two-time Golden Gloves state champion stopped at Murphy’s Bar in Denver one night. To his surprise, a fight at Madison Square Garden was visible on a television behind the bar. It was the first time he had seen a television. He was instantly transfixed.

But, as was the case with many small, rural communities, there was no television when Daniels reached Casper: a mountain range prevented the signal from reaching the town. He did some research and found that several towns in the eastern United States had resolved the same issue by transmitting TV signals as radio frequency signals through coaxial cable. A single large antenna might be set up on a mountaintop or hill to pick up the nearest signal, which would then be run through cables strung on telephone poles to the homes of subscribers.

In 1953, Daniels started a cable system in Casper, at great initial expense. But the bet paid off. For a single black-and-white channel that broadcast for only eight hours daily, he won 4,000 subscribing households—about a third of the total homes in the area. Before long, he found himself traveling all across the West, securing investors, finding customers, and recruiting talent. In 1958, as small cable systems began to proliferate, Daniels sensed the need for a brokerage firm for the nascent industry. In Denver, he founded Daniels and Associates, which became the center of the burgeoning industry.

“Bill may have been the prime architect of [cable’s] capital structure—the whole way in which the cable industry decided to make money,” explained cable entrepreneur John Malone. “In the very early days, the theory was that you charged people a lot to hook them up and then you wouldn’t charge them hardly anything after that. Bill took it the other way, which was we’ll have much higher revenues and much more success if we treat it as an ongoing revenue stream.”

With the cable boom in the 1980s and ’90s, Daniels’ fortune exploded. He had always been generous to his employees and to people in need. (Although the amounts remain unknown, he would anonymously make cash gifts to families whose homes had burned down or who were suffering medical emergencies.) Daniels also gave generously to homeless shelters, food pantries, and organizations that served the disabled. But his wealth made possible philanthropy on a large scale.

He had a soft spot for kids—like him—who needed a hand up to succeed, and he often gave scholarships to put these young people through college and through NMMI. The student need not have been a straight-A student. Daniels was looking for hard-working kids with strong values and leadership potential. He did expect satisfactory grades to keep the scholarship funds coming, and he also expected the student to live by high moral standards and hold down a part-time job.

In 1986, the work-hard, party-hard playboy faced a reality check when his closest friends and business associates confronted him about his drinking. He committed himself to the Betty Ford Center, where he kicked alcohol for good. He never forgot hitting rock bottom, and for the rest of his life he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, sponsored drug and alcohol addicts, referred friends to the Ford Center, and even paid for their treatment. In 1988, he became the first Ford Center alumnus to join its board, and he funded the construction of the Daniels Children’s Center. As the time of his death in 2000, he was one of the center’s largest funders.

Daniels sensed after his recovery that he had much more philanthropic work ahead of him. In the 1980s, he became concerned that the nation’s leading business schools did not teach business ethics. In the 1980s and 1990s, he gave over $22 million to what became the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, where he insisted that ethics and etiquette become a mandatory part of the MBA curriculum—one of the first business schools in the nation to do so.

Daniels’ favorite philanthropic creation was Young Americans Bank, which he hoped would prepare young people to participate in the free enterprise system. Daniels personally backed the bank, which he insisted would be fully functioning, state-chartered, and FDIC-insured. After two years of wooing skeptical regulators, Daniels opened YAB in 1987. The bank serves people under 21; customers can open checking and savings accounts, apply for credit cards designed to teach them how to spend wisely, and obtain small-business loans. By 2011, YAB had served nearly 70,000 customers.

As the bank grew, so did its mission—YAB spun off its financial literacy teaching into an elementary school–level classroom curriculum, and it also created Young AmeriTowne—an experience in which students run model businesses and learn how to execute their duties as financially responsible citizens. When asked in 1996 what his proudest accomplishment was, Daniels didn’t miss a beat. “Young Americans Bank,” he said.

“I think God told me as a young man to share my good fortune with others,” Daniels said near the end of his life. “I have tried to do it. And my foundation will see to it when I die. Believe me, it is a real joy to me to be able to help people.”

Further reading:

  • Daniels Fund, The Life and Legacy of Bill Daniels,
  • Stephen Singular, Relentless: Bill Daniels and the Triumph of Cable TV, 2003.

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