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Former AT&T Chairman John deButts Dead At 71

December 18, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ John D. deButts, who led American Telephone & Telegraph Co. when the government launched its antitrust case against the phone giant, has died of heart failure at a Winchester, Va. hospital.

He died Wednesday at age 71, the company announced.

DeButts was chairman and chief executive from 1972 to 1979 of what then was the world’s largest company. He opposed efforts to break up AT&T and was reportedly dismayed by the 1984 settlement that split off the Bell System’s 23 operating companies.

DeButts, who lived in Upperville, Va., suffered from diabetes and had one leg amputated in recent years because of the condition. AT&T spokesman Walter Murphy said diabetes was not mentioned as a cause of his death.

A spokeswoman at Winchester Medical Center said deButts’ physician could not be reached for a statement.

The 42-year Bell System career of deButts began in 1936, when he was hired as a $100-a-month trainee in the traffic department of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co.

DeButts served as president of Illinois Bell Telephone Co. and later as executive vice president and then vice chairman of AT&T. He served as chairman and chief executive of the company from April 1972 until his retirement in February 1979, when he was succeeded by Charles Brown. Brown retired earlier this year.

″John deButts stood tall among the great corporate statesmen of our time,″ James Olson, the company’s current chairman and chief executive, said in a prepared statement.

According to AT&T, during deButts’ tenure the assets of the Bell System rose nearly 65 percent, earnings steadily increased and service problems of the early 1970s were overcome.

DeButts called the Bell System breakup a ″tragedy″ in a 1984 interview for a new book by Steve Coll, ″The Deal of the Century.″ DeButts said he was pained by what he saw then as a deterioration in the service concept of the operating companies and an overemphasis on profits.

″It pains me. It hurts me a lot,″ he was quoted as saying.

Analysts say phone service has improved since 1984, when companies were first adjusting to the breakup.

DeButts was active as a spokesman for American business and was one of the few executives to serve as chairman of both the Business Council and the Business Roundtable, two prominent pro-business organizations. He also was one of the first corporate executives to appear in his company’s television commercials.

He had served on the boards of such companies as Citicorp, General Motors Corp., Kraft Corp. and USX Corp.

DeButts was born April 10, 1915, in Greensboro, N.C., and graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1936 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

Survivors include his wife, Mrs. Gertrude deButts, two daughters, Mrs. Tyler R. Cain of Lake Forest, Ill., and Mrs. Collins Couch of San Antonio, Texas., and four grandchildren.

Funeral services were scheduled for Saturday at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, Va.

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