MORGANTOWN — In 1961, Don Panoz picked up the phone and called an old Army buddy with a bent for business.
“Why don’t we start a drug company in West Virginia?”
After a moment’s pause, the person on the other end answered the question — with a question.
“Why not?” Milan “Mike” Puskar said.
The result was Mylan Pharmaceuticals in Morgantown. Successful as it was, that venture, however, wasn’t the pinnacle for Panoz, who died Tuesday at his home in the Atlanta area.
When news broke of his death — Panoz, 83, battled pancreatic cancer — the business wires crackled with stories of his other successes in the pharmaceuticals industry, away from the company that first propelled his portfolio.
A pharmacist by training, Panoz was credited with leading the research that developed the transdermal patch, now notably known for the people who wear it while kicking their smoking habit.
All told, Panoz landed more than 300 patents in the pharmaceuticals industry.
Along the way he also invested in wineries and resorts and would later literally lead the pack as a racing entrepreneur, bringing the Formula One version of the sport back to a NASCAR-saturated America.
“The word, ‘vacation,’ wasn’t in dad’s vocabulary,” said his son, Chris Hewitt, who owns and operates “Big Red’s Shanty,” an Americana-themed diner at Cheat Lake.
“That’s why I’m out here working today. I’m grilling hotdogs and flipping burgers. Dad wouldn’t want me sitting at home crying.”
Panoz, who grew up in Spencer, was the son of an Italian immigrant.
His father, Eugene Panunzio — he shortened the name after he got here — used his fists as a champion featherweight boxer to help finance his version of the American Dream.
Eugene’s son went to military school, joined the Army, got married, enrolled in Duquesne University and was running two drug stores in Pittsburgh when he picked up the phone to call Puskar.
The two had become friends during their military service in Japan and Korea, and played off each other well, Hewitt said.
“Dad was the dreamer and Mike was the Devil’s advocate,” he said.
After first setting their fledgling company up in an abandoned roller rink in White Sulphur Springs, they moved the operation to Morgantown in 1965.
That was because of the WVU medical hub and something else, Hewitt said: Their shared love of WVU football.
Puskar died in 2011.
“They’re both up there together now,” he said, chuckling. “This just might be the season.”
Panoz, his son said, wasn’t afraid to try new approaches in business: “He called it, ‘The subtle difference of excellence.’”
Like his more high-profile friend Puskar, Panoz was also driven to do for others, Hewitt said, whether it was through his innovations in pharmaceuticals, dollars donated to communities and causes or by offering a hand to others starting out, as he once was.
“Dad helped a lot of people,” he said. “That’s how I want people to remember him.”
In turn, Panoz never forgot Morgantown.
“This town gave me one hell of a chance,” he told a WVU audience in 2014.
Story by Jim Bissett