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John Marshall, who helped found Teleconnect, dies

Friends and family described him as a 'born salesman'

John Marshall (front right) sits with his son Christopher Marshall (back left) and grandsons Stephen John Marshall and Gregory Marshall (front left and back right). (Courtesy Chris Marshall)
John Marshall (front right) sits with his son Christopher Marshall (back left) and grandsons Stephen John Marshall and Gregory Marshall (front left and back right). (Courtesy Chris Marshall)
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A former Cedar Rapids salesman who clashed with “Ma Bell” and helped found a locally based telecommunications company died late last month.

John Marshall, the son of former Gazette editor Verne Marshall, died Jan. 31 in Jasper, Ga. He was 81.

Born in Cedar Rapids, Marshall was the youngest of six children and the first boy.

“There were five girls and finally a baby brother. That was very exciting for all of us,” his sister, Frances Lash, 91, said.

Marshall’s family and friends described him as a “born salesman” who could be kind to a fault.

“That was the one thing you could depend on was there was nobody that I know of that could ever say anything bad about the guy,” his son, Chris Marshall, said.

He loved to travel and lived in cities in Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, Idaho and more. He also could be impulsive at times. When he met Connie Thompson, his first wife, on a blind date, he proposed the same night.

“He proposed to me that night and I accepted. Three months to the day later we were married,” Thompson, 80, recalled.

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While they were married, Thompson said Marshall would pick up hitchhikers, at times even inviting them into their home for a meal.

“I think he had an aspect about him, (that) he thought with his heart more than he did with his brain,” Thompson said.

FIGHTS WITH ‘MA BELL’

As a businessman, Marshall got his start working for Bell Telephone in Illinois where the bug of telecommunications bit him. From there, he would go on to found or help start multiple Cedar Rapids-based companies that sold communications equipment, including Sound Inc., TelCom Systems and Teleconnect.

As Marshall’s work started to compete with Bell and AT&T, those companies “went after him with a vengeance,” Chris Marshall said.

“They were doing everything they possibly could to put him under. They just didn’t want the competition.”

Marshall sued the Bell companies for anticompetitive practices, but the telephone giant essentially waited him out until he ran out of money, friends and family said.

“Needless to say, you don’t fight Ma Bell and win,” Thompson said.

Marshall kept at the communications business. In 1979, he went to Clark McLeod — who now co-runs the Monarch Research Project — to start telephone company Teleconnect. The company sold telephone systems and eventually started providing long-distance call service.

While McLeod led the company, Marshall was a chief salesman. He never preferred to manage or supervise others, Marshall’s son said.

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“He didn’t like supervising people, he didn’t like firing people, he didn’t like giving bad news. He liked selling, he liked representing the company and being everybody’s friend,” Chris Marshall said.

As a salesman, Marshall knew the value of being honest with clients, especially in a small business community such as the one in Cedar Rapids, said McLeod, who also founded McLeodUSA.

“He was out to provide his customer the very best he could provide them at a fair price,” McLeod said. “If he felt he didn’t have the product or for one reason or another it wasn’t a good idea for the client to buy a phone system, he would tell them that.”

McLeod also credited Marshall for getting Teleconnect into the long-distance service business. While selling equipment in Waterloo, McLeod said Marshall realized there wasn’t a long-distance competitor in town. He asked McLeod why Teleconnect didn’t just enter the market.

“That was actually the first time I thought of doing a long-distance company,” McLeod said. “When you think about all the things you have to do to provide (service), it’s very complex, but John’s little morsel there was something that kicked off the second piece of our business.”

Teleconnect eventually became Telecom USA and then sold to MCI in 1990 for $1.2 billion.

McLeod said Marshall’s 1960s suit against Bell was settled in the early 1980s.

Marshall’s run-ins also played a part in the consequential Carterfone decision, McLeod said. That 1968 decision by the Federal Communications Commission allowed third-party devices to connect to the system set up by Bell, opening up competition.

“John always told me that one-third of all of the evidence presented in that case came from Iowa and came from his early days in the intercom business,” McLeod said. “John was truly a pioneer in the whole telephone industry.”

A private ceremony for Marshall will be held Saturday, Feb. 10 in Jasper, Ga.

A memorial stone will be placed in Oak Hill Cemetery, 1705 Mount Vernon Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

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