WHO'S WHO - JOE L. ALLBRITTON
When business people worldwide think of the late Joe L. Allbritton, they probably think of him as one of Washington’s movers and shakers. After all, he was the major stockholder and chairman of the capitol’s largest bank, owns a primary television station there, and was the publisher of The Washington Star in the mid-1970s. But Allbritton always considered himself a Texan. His primary residence was still the Houston house he had for the past 25 years, and he owned University Bank in Houston. Besides, Texas is where he was raised, educated, and had his early business success.
Soon after earning his law degree from Baylor University, Allbritton established San Jacinto Savings & Loan. Within 15 years, he had become the largest stockholder in First International Bancshares of Dallas. He sold that stock in 1973 and started buying shares of University Bankshares. Meanwhile, he also owned Los Angeles-based Pierce National Life Insurance. Intrigued by the financial and social opportunities available through media outlets, he bought Washington Star Communications, Inc., which owned the newspaper and several radio and TV stations.
FCC cross-ownership laws forced Allbritton to sell The Star to Time, Inc. in 1978. That sale and the disposal of his two radio stations netted him a $2.1 million profit and he got to keep the centerpiece of the media holdings, Washington’s WMAL-TV, which he renamed WJLA. He expanded those holdings into a small chain of stations nationwide.
After the sale, Allbritton thought he’d take a rest. "We came in to save The Staff" he said. "Once we had to sell it, my interest in news-papering waned. I retired for a little while. It was pretty boring and hard on everybody, so I decided to get back into banking."
Allbritton was invited to invest in Riggs National Bank, which dated back to 1815. It financed the Mexican-American War and put up $7.2 million in gold to allow President Lincoln to buy Alaska from Russia. "I never intended to take a positive role," he said, but by 1980 he had bought 15 percent of the bank. He ended up with 40.1 percent and became chairman and CEO. He increased the bank’s assets from $3 billion to almost $5 billion.
Allbritton guided Riggs through an early-90s banking crisis. Riggs was the only bank that survived, and he credited that to his knowledge of what happened in Texas in the late 1980s. "Banking in Texas got in deep trouble before banking in Washington," he said. "When the ill winds started blowing, I recognized some of the signs and managed to barricade against the storm." But you can bet that when he said, "My orientation is toward profit, not power," it was certainly Texas, not Washington, talking.
His "dual citizenship" was also evident in his charitable involvement. Allbritton was a seven-figure contributor to Lady Bird Johnson’s National Wildflower Research Center and was a director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation in Austin and the George Bush Presidential Foundation in College Station. In Washington, he helped establish a $6 million endowment fund for Washington’s Arena Stage and serves on the federal city council. He sat on the boards of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing
Arts and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to which he donated the official
White House portrait of President Reagan. He contribution to Washington
National Cathedral, where he was made a Lay canon.
He attended the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in London. Allbritton also made a name for himself in thoroughbred horse racing. In 1991, his 3-year-old horse, Hansel, won two legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and the Belmont.
Allbritton and his wife, Barbara, were major contributors through to numerous organizations through the Allbritton Foundation. Organizations they donated to including the Baylor College of Medicine, the Allbritton Art Institute, the Oxford Scholars, and the establishment of the International School of Law, which has become the George Mason University School of Law.
He died on December 12, 2012, aged 87, of heart trouble, in Houston. He is survived by his widow, Barbara, and their son, Robert and two grandchildren.