Former California Cable Television Association president and Walter Kaitz Foundation founder Spencer Kaitz will be honored this week at the annual Walter Kaitz Foundation dinner. Providing a historical account of his life, Kaitz sat down with the Cable Center in 1989 for a wide-ranging interview that touched upon the launch of the Kaitz Foundation, his start with the CCTA and on his father, the late Walter Kaitz. Below are excerpts from that interview.
Reflecting on his father’s life:
My father was born in Russia. The family was leather merchants. They fled the Russian revolution because the story has it that they were marked for extermination as middle class. He grew up in south Boston in a fairly rough neighborhood. It is rougher now than it was then. It was an immigrant neighborhood in those days.
He got a newspaper-boy scholarship to Harvard [University]. In World War II, he was a first lieutenant in the artillery. He was in ROTC at Harvard and given an officer’s commission, but because he was an immigrant, the commission was taken away. When war broke out, and we got serious about it, they gave him his commission back. He had quite an outstanding war record. He landed at Normandy at about D-Day plus 12. He went all the way through France and Germany, and ended up in Czechoslovakia. Then he came back. He was scheduled to go to Harvard Law School but he got back too late to make that class, so he enlisted for another nine months.
Because he was fluent in both German and French, he was promptly sent to Japan where he met my mother. He had a wonderful war record, but he went AWOL [absent without leave] to make sure he had a first date with my mother in Japan. The Army commander on his ship announced that he would make sure that he emerged as a private. He was traveling under sealed orders that required that he report directly to Gen. McArthur. For that reason he was not court martialed. He never regretted that he went AWOL.
On the Kaitz family’s beginnings in cable:
[Walter Kaitz’s] involvement with cable started around 1960. He was hired to get a bill passed by the legislature to legitimatize the cable franchises that existed in the scattered rural areas of California. Almost all of them were small systems at that time. The bill that he passed is still in the government code. It authorized cities to grant franchises and authorized them to make use of public easements.
In 1960, cable for him was a rather minor client. My father represented the California Real Estate Association, a major entity. And he represented the broadcasting industry. But his largest area of activity in the ’60s was with public employees. He represented over 100,000 county employees through a county-employment organization.
My mother [Idell] became the de facto secretary/treasurer of the [California] cable association. My father was put on a retainer as general counsel. He also provided an office and staffing for the organization. He worked out of his house by and large in those days.
My father was the classic family businessman. But he turned [his business] into a profession as opposed to a shopkeeper. He had very, very strong personal ties with the businesses that he handled, and he had what I thought we could call a nurturing relationship. That’s why his relationship with cable, both his and my mother’s, was so significant at the time — a time when the industry was fragmented and many people in it weren’t really sure whether they were in it as a career or just in it for a short time.
Other cable people were very suspicious of their peers and weren’t sure why they should be working together. One of his great contributions was to bring them into a cohesive organization. This came at a time when most people belonged to state and national associations. Professional associations are enormously important. Probably in the next decade they may have more to do with profitability and survival of the cable industry than almost any other factor because of the kinds of problems that are challenging us.
On his start in cable:
About 1978, I had started a real estate business, because when I first went to work for the association, I did not want to be full time. I had this vision that if I worked only for a trade association I’d end up like a government bureaucrat. Having listened to so many cable operators complain so bitterly about government bureaucrats and people who had never made a payroll, I knew that I didn’t want to be one.
I was actually scheduled to be with a law firm. The impetus in joining the association came out of my mother’s death and my father’s despondency over that.
I decided for a couple years I would help my father out, but I didn’t want to be full time so I started a small law practice but primarily a real estate business. Eventually, my wife left the district attorney’s office to take over the real estate business, because both it and the association were growing. I complained to her that I was either going to have to leave the cable association or get a partner in the real estate business.
[Kaitz took over the reigns of the California Cable Television Association in 1980.]
On the idea for the Walter Kaitz Foundation:
When my father became sick in 1979, it became clear to me that he was too sick to expect to go back to the full-time kind of work that he had had before. My father was a person with a surprising amount of energy. He didn’t seem to require a lot of sleep. At convention time, he would get up at seven in the morning and was rarely in bed by two or three. His heart condition was such that it seemed that that was not going to be possible. I was trying to think of something that would be interesting for him, knowing he could stay involved with the association, but might need new interests. I thought of the idea of the foundation initially, frankly thinking about it as something that might be done in relationship to cable legislation. I discussed it with him a couple of times when he was sick.
I should have seen signs of his coming death, but it shocked me when he passed away.
I had been toying with the idea of a foundation without having any specific purpose in mind. When he did pass away, I put out word to people that rather than sending flowers, which I felt we’d get in some abundance, it would be nice if they could send some money also, and we might think of a use for it.
The desire people had to do something in memory of Walter Kaitz — even though there had been no mention of a purpose, and the foundation consisted only of a bank account at that point — resulted in … what at that time seemed to be a serious amount of money in the bank. I began spending more effort [thinking] through what kind of foundation would make sense.
On the Foundation’s Objectives:
The foundation really didn’t get a good focus of my attention until ’81. In ’81, the cable industry had its first minority chair; Gwen Moor chairing a subcommittee on cable. Gwen was very interested in developing opportunities for more minorities in this growing industry. I could see a very difficult and bitter legislative confrontation occurring, which no side would win. It’s very hard to oppose legislation opening up opportunities for minorities and other people, yet, at the same time, that legislation almost always has sanctions and other elements thrown in that are frightening and perhaps even inappropriate. My concerns with the industry and the political battle facing the industry and the presence of this foundation suddenly emerged into a thought: perhaps we could convince Gwen that she should give us a chance to try to solve the problem ourselves. In discussions with her, I laid out this idea. She was willing to give it a shot.
There had been all sorts of efforts and programs. The effort to force integration and business had not been successful and resulted in anger and litigation, which seemed almost to create a more hostile environment for minorities than before.
She was very interested in the idea that the cable industry would try to integrate from within and that the leadership for doing that would not be foisted on the industry. There would not be some group attacking cable nor some legislative rules. The impetus would, in fact, be made up of the leadership of the industry working within their own companies in an organized fashion to develop opportunities for minorities. The industry embraced the concept that it wanted to be the first media industry [sector] that could say that its executive suites had people in them that mirrored those that subscribed to the service.
On Walter Kaitz’s commitment to Diversity:
There were really two themes that ran through my father’s life, both of which you need to understand to see the significance of the foundation in relation to him.
First, my father was an immigrant. He came from a family that … believed that they would have been shot [had they remained in Russia]. The story is that they actually were jailed and it was a poor relative who bribed the jailer with a bottle of vodka that saved them from the firing squad. In a sense it doesn’t matter about the facts of it. The reality is that he and his family felt enormously grateful to be in this country and enormously grateful that people could come from another country, speak no English and succeed.
I don’t think he made much distinction between problems of immigrants and problems of minorities, ethnic issues. For him, America was the promised land. It was a land where everybody should have an opportunity to prosper. There were a number of resulting views. He was a strong believer in public education. He was very opposed to the restrictions on immigration. He was very opposed to any efforts to limit the opportunities for any racial group.
The second thing: In the cable industry he also saw the problem developing of access to the industry for people who weren’t part of the old pioneers. He took an active role in the NCTA [National Cable & Telecommunications Association] equal affairs committee, which was chaired by Dick Munro for a while. I think that he felt that there were some political tides that were particularly clear in California, because California will, within a decade, be a minority state in the sense of having that kind of ethnic diversity. He saw the political tides present in Sacramento and felt that the industry needed to be aggressive in championing the cause of minorities who had talent and wanted to be in the industry.
On diversity and the cable industry:
We knew that cable jobs are not easy to get. People often show up at my office wondering how to get into cable. The fact is that it’s such a desirable industry to get into that every time we ever advertised for a position we’ve gotten 400-plus resumes, and then we never hired off the resumes. We always ended up hiring somebody who applied but also who we knew and knew a lot about. So it was in a sense the popularity of cable that made us feel that it’s important to create a new avenue for minorities to get in.
Once they were in the industry, we assumed that they would, in fact, talk to their friends, and there would be a multiplicative effect, bringing more minorities in.
We find that their path in the industry is very similar to that of other cable executives. They get raided often by other companies and they move them around a bit between companies. But once they are established in industry with a good reputation, they don’t leave the industry. The objective is to create a bigger pool of minorities.