John Panagos of Potomac, innovator in the communications industry, died of leukemia Jan. 29 at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. He was 82.
Panagos was a naval aviator in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he worked for 10 years at the Scripps-Howard Washington Daily News. He was also a former owner of The Gaithersburg Gazette, and in 1966, he received the area’s first franchise for cable television.
He started as a classified advertising salesman at the Daily News in 1947 and soon became classified advertising manager, then retail advertising manager.
In 1957, Panagos left the News to become vice president of United Broadcasting Co. (UBC), a privately owned network of seven radio stations and three television stations in Washington, D.C. He became UBC’s executive vice president, responsible for organizing and starting up Channel 14, the country’s first commercial UHF television station. He also started the area’s first Latino radio stations, WFAN-FM.
In the early 1960s, Panagos spent time with his family traveling, and he took time “to figure out where his next venture will be,” said his wife, Mary Ann Panagos. They were living with their children in a home they had built in Potomac.
During those years, Panagos also did some consulting work for Peoples Drug and other businesses.
He studied the Washington metropolitan area market.
“One day” in 1966, said Mary Ann, “John was riding on South Frederick Road [Md. 355] and saw The Gazette sign on a big white house on a hill. He came home and said, I found the newspaper I want to buy.’” He predicted that Gaithersburg and upper Montgomery County was about to experience a tremendous growth.
The Gaithersburg Gazette at that time was a twice-monthly tabloid newspaper owned and operated by Nat Blum.
Panagos said many times that being prepared and timing are the key to success.
Early in 1966, John and Mary Ann went to Blum. They struck up a deal, and the Panagoses bought not only the newspaper but also the Holiday Motel and the property on South Frederick Road in a package deal. Blum and his wife, Mickey Blum, lived in the “big white house” where Panagos had seen the Gazette sign, and operated both the businesses from their home. Panagos later built a small brick building fronting the property to house The Gazette. Two sections of motel units were lined up at the back of the property.
After six months, Panagos changed the newspaper to a weekly publication on Jan. 26, 1967. He built up the section of the newspaper where he got his start, the classified ads.
Panagos not only increased the frequency of the publication to weekly but also built it up from of an average about 24 pages to twice that size by 1978 and increased its circulation from 9,000 to 35,000 by 1978.
But growing the publication was not the only venture Panagos became interested in when he made his appearance in Gaithersburg. He became the first in the Washington metropolitan area to receive a franchise for cable television, applying in 1966, for a franchise when not many residents knew anything about the cable communications industry.
Upon learning of Panagos’ death, James R. Shay, former Gaithersburg City Council member, said Panagos’ “pioneering spirit led Gaithersburg into the 20th century.”
“It was something the council knew nothing about,” he recalled. “Cable television was brand new then. We were on ground we didn’t know anything about, and we were plowing that ground together.”
Shay also recalled that the council, “wanting to make an informed decision on the granting of a franchise, hired a consultant in the cable industry to advise us.”
The FCC granted Panagos the first license in the country for a 14-foot earth station on his South Frederick Road property and went on the air in 1970. At that time, the attractions were first-run movies, Gaithersburg city news and clear reception of the four major networks and Baltimore stations.
To accomplish this, Panagos built 90 miles of cable – 50 miles underground and 40 overhead on Potomac Electric Power Co. and Bell Atlantic poles.
Lionel Hampton was his music director for a dollar a year -- “They wrote it on a napkin,” said Mary Ann. Nat King Cole did the commercials as a personal favor, and Mahalia Jackson was “always on call.”
Originally, the cable system was offered in rural areas because they could not pick up the major network signals and in mountainous areas, where reception was poor. Panagos foresaw that the industry was developing into a medium that was giving greater selectivity to the viewer.
As he did The Gaithersburg Gazette, Panagos later sold his Gaithersburg Cable, Television, Inc. He told the Montgomery County Business Record that he “turned a profit after the fourth year, which is unheard of in the industry.”
He sold the Gazette on Dec. 29, 1979, to Davis Kennedy. This week, when he spoke of his purchase, Kennedy said, “At that time, The Gazette was one of the most profitable weekly newspapers in the Washington, D.C., area, given its size.”
About his sale of the Gazette, Panagos said he had been working a hundred hours a week and was tired, he wanted to see more of his family, play golf again and travel.
Panagos sold the cable business to Tribune Corp. of Chicago, which is now Comcast Cable TV, headquartered in Montgomery County.
Gaithersburg City Mayor Sidney Katz, said about Panagos: “He was a fine person who will surely be missed by our community. He was a respected civic leader for many, many years.”
Panagos was president of the Advertising Club of Metropolitan Washington from June 1959 to June 1960. He was responsible for starting the Ad Club’s first Pictorial Roster.
In 1959, Panagos received the Silver Medal of the American Advertising Federation for outstanding service to his community, advertising and allied fields and to the Advertising Club of Metropolitan Washington. The nominations for his candidacy for the coveted award praised Panagos for being a pioneer and innovator, “a man of many firsts in the advertising field and media.”
Panagos’ undertakings in the community also went outside the realm of the communications industry.
He served 22 years on the Board of Trustees at Bullis School in Potomac, where he worked on a building fund campaign for the school, with his main focus being a state-of-the-art theater building on the campus. He also provided tuition scholarships.
He was a member of the American Legion, served on the executive committee of the Montgomery County Chapter of the Red Cross under Gen. Lewis B. Hershey; and assisted in organizing the Gaithersburg Chamber of Commerce. He also served on the Washington Board of Trade, the United Givers Fund, the American Cancer Society, and he was a member of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and the Montgomery County Press Association.
Panagos attended the University of Maryland and the University of Georgia. In June 1943, he graduated from the Pensacola Naval Air Station, obtaining his Navy Wings of Gold and commission as an ensign. During World War II he distinguished himself as a dive-bomber pilot.
Before and after world War II, he had an interest in theater, studying with Elia Kazan and appearing on Broadway.
Panagos was a son of Evdokia and Milton Panagos, who had emigrated from Greece and settled in Washington, D.C.
Besides his wife, Panagos is survived by their children, Linda and Jim Madden of Texas; Diane Noone of Texas; Kathy and J.T. Armstrong of Germantown; and Lisa Marie Panagos of Hollywood; one brother, George Panagos of Bethesda; two sisters, Vasha Kolius of Chevy Chase, Md., and Peggy Lee, of Northwest Washington; six grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.