Ralph Roberts: From selling milk and playing poker to founding Comcast and building the cable giant in Philadelphia

Ralph Rob

Ralph Roberts died Thursday night at the age of 95, and his legacy and that of the company he founded here, Comcast, will always be rooted in Philadelphia.

But Roberts wasn’t actually born here. He spent most of his childhood and teenage years in New Rochelle, N.Y.. His family moved to Philadelphia when he was 17, and he attended Germantown High School. It wasn’t an easy move. Roberts had grown up in a wealthy family, but the Depression hit and his father died. When he first moved here he lived in an apartment with his aunt. He credited his mother with getting him through those rough years.

Shortly after his move to Germantown, Roberts met the woman who would become his wife, Suzanne, at a Congregation Rodeph Shalom dance. At age 20, he asked her to marry him — on a canoe in the Schuylkill. They wouldn’t marry for another couple years.

For college, he went to Wharton. He was already working on his entrepreneurial skills, out of necessity. Roberts sold milk to get by and still lived at home.

His first job after Wharton and serving in the Navy was as a VP with Muzak. Then he got a job with and later owned a longtime Philadelphia company, Pioneer Suspender Co. He always had a wide range of skills. In addition to the fashion of Pioneer Suspender, Roberts helped start QVC and also won an honorary award from the TV Academy (sort of an Emmy) for his Comcast leadership. 

Comcast started in 1963 with the purchase of a small TV company in Tupelo, Miss., in 1963 and grew from there (Roberts first heard about the company during a poker game!). As the cable industry exploded and Comcast’s profits multiplied, Roberts and the company never left Philadelphia. Here are a few Philadelphia-area buildings and companies that are named after him or exist because of Roberts:

  • The Roberts Proton Therapy Center at Penn: Roberts and his son, Brian L. Roberts, donated $15 million so Penn could build this first-of-its-kind cancer treatment center.
  • QVC: With fellow Wharton alum/Franklin Mint founder Joe Segel, Roberts helped start this home-shopping network that is still based in the suburbs.
  • Ralph’s: The Comcast building’s 43rd and 44th floor cafeteria bears his name.
  • Suzanne Roberts Theatre: Built in 2007, this building honors Roberts’ wife, who was an actor. The Philadelphia Theatre Company is in financial distress, and the bank foreclosed on the building earlier this year.

Even in death, Comcast will still acknowledge the enduring importance of Roberts. The company is paying a “founder’s salary” of about $2 million to his selected beneficiary for the next five years.

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