NEW YORK — John D. deButts, who was chairman of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. when the government launched its 1974 antitrust case against the communications conglomerate, has died of heart failure.
He died Wednesday at age 71 at a Winchester, Va., hospital, the company announced.
From 1972 to 1979, DeButts was chairman and chief executive of what then was the world's largest company. He opposed efforts to break up AT&T and was dismayed by the 1984 settlement that split off the Bell System's 23 operating companies.
He had charged in a 1974 news conference that the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust suit was based "on the theory that competition is good regardless of whether it costs the customer more or not."
DeButts, who lived in Upperville, Va., suffered from diabetes and had had one leg amputated in recent years because of the condition. But AT&T spokesman Walter Murphy said diabetes was not mentioned as a cause of his death.
DeButts' 42-year career with the Bell System began in 1936, when he was hired as a $100-a-month trainee in the traffic department of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.
Over the years he served as president of Illinois Bell Telephone Co. and later as executive vice president and then vice chairman of AT&T. He was chairman and chief executive of the company from April, 1972, until his retirement in February of 1979, when he was succeeded by Charles Brown. Brown retired earlier this year.
During DeButts' tenure the assets of the Bell System rose nearly 65%.
In a 1984 interview for a book by Steve Coll, "The Deal of the Century," DeButts called the Bell System breakup a "tragedy" and said he was pained by what he saw 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.
Communications analysts now say, however, that telephone service has improved since 1984, when companies were first adjusting to the breakup.
DeButts, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute with a degree in electrical engineering, 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.