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David Copley Dies at 60; Heir to Union-Tribune Fortune Was Once Worth $1.2B

Former owner and publisher of Copley Press chain of newspapers died in a car accident in La Jolla on Tuesday evening.

Updated at 4:28 p.m. Nov. 21, 2012 

David Copley, the former billionaire owner and publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune, died Tuesday after a car crash in La Jolla. He was 60.

U-T San Diego reported that the accident involving his Aston Martin occurred at 6:15 p.m. near Eads Avenue and Silverado Street.

Copley, who had a heart transplant in 2005, was taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla and pronounced dead at 8 p.m. of an apparent heart attack, according to a family friend.

A spokesperson for the hospital said Copley left a Museum of Contemporary Art board meeting, where he was president, after reportedly not feeling well.

Dr. Robert Singer, a La Jolla plastic surgeon and close friend of Copley, said his family and friends were “heartbroken.”

“He was the kindest and most wonderful friend anyone could ever wish for,” Singer said. “His generosity, sense of humor, and joy in life will be greatly missed. He was a great San Diegan and a beloved citizen of the world. He died of an apparent heart attack after leaving the Contemporary Museum where he chaired the board meeting in his capacity as the president of the museum.”

In July 2005, when he was 53, Copley announced he was recovering from heart transplant surgery at Sharp Memorial Hospital. He later pledged $5 million to the San Diego hospital.

After his heart surgery, David Copley said: “The surgeons and their team at Sharp Hospital in San Diego did a magnificent job. Indeed, over the last two years, they literally have saved my life several times. Thanks to their skill and the scientific advances that make their work possible, I can look forward to many years of renewed vigor and productivity.”

He was the son of Helen K. Copley, who inherited the company after the death of her husband, James, in 1973. 

Helen Copley died of pneumonia at age 81 in August 2004. On the orders of David, her only child, the news was withheld about eight hours from the paper’s website until the following morning so readers could learn of her passing in the print newspaper, according to Ken Stone, who worked at SignOnSanDiego.com at the time.

The San Diego Union-Tribune garnered two Pulitzer Prizes while David was publisher. He later sold the company in 2009 to Platinum Equity ending the family's 81-year ownership, and developer Doug Manchester purchased the newspaper in 2011.

“David was a classic example that money could not buy happiness,” former U-T reporter Preston Turegano told Patch. “He often seemed like such a sad, tragic figure, struggling as an obese, very tall, shy man among the socially elite and beautiful.”

Turegano, who worked at the paper between 1970 before retiring as an arts writer in 2006, said Copley understood journalism and his newspaper's role in the community.

“When he attended Menlo College in the 1970s, each summer he worked in various sections or departments—including the messy inky press room—of the Union-Tribune,” he said. “Years later, when he was No. 2 behind his mother at the paper, he resigned as a trustee of the San Diego Museum of Art when the organization demanded that he kill an investigative Union-Tribune story about that institution’s executive director's free-wheeling and extravagant expenditures.”

Laura Wolfe worked at the U-T for 38 years in several roles, including in community relations and was the Newspaper In Education coordinator.

“David was supportive as his mother, Helen, for literacy efforts,” Wolfe told Patch via email late Tuesday night. “He contributed annually to the Newspaper In Education literacy page ‘We the People, Believe that Reading is Freedom’—helping us raise over $50,000 for free newspapers for schools. 

“David was a generous gentleman. We go back to the ’70s when David was a substitute for The Evening Tribune bowling league. I remember a Union-Tribune 25th Anniversary luncheon where he spoke with tears about how grateful he was for his life and the doctors who performed his heart surgery. It is a shame he died so young.”

On Wednesday, Hugh Davies, the CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art, remembered Copley as thoughtful, considerate and intellgent.

In message scheduled to go out to museum members, Davies said Copley “had a marvelous eye for art and design and possessed a gret joy for life. We have lost a very, very devoted friend and passionate supporter.”

Retired U-T editor Karin Winner, also a La Jollan, was quoted as saying Copley “had an enormous capacity for humor and an uncanny ability to understand the bigger picture without having all the facts, which was a trait his mother had.”

U-T San Diego said Winner continued:

I’m really glad that he had the past few years to live his life the way he wanted to. I know that it was very hard on him to let the paper be sold, but he thought it was what was best for the community and the employees at the time.

Manchester, who renamed the paper U-T San Diego, was quoted as saying: “David was a sensitive and caring person who supported so many worthy causes and was taken from us way too soon. The entire San Diego community will miss him and the philanthropy that he and his family made possible for do many years.”

In 2008, Copley—a collector of contemporary art, including works by Christo—gave $6 million to endow a chair and a center for costume design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, said to be the first of its kind in the world.

According to the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans in 2005, Copley had a net worth of $1.2 billion—and was No. 283 on the list. The value of his properties plunged in the next three years amid declining circulation, Internet competition and the crash of 2008 and 2009. 

A blog devoted to “superyachts” said Copley’s pleasure boat, named Happy Days, was 164 feet long and could accoomodate 14 guests and a crew of 12.

“Happy Days is the largest composite yacht ever built in the Americas (2006),” said a January 2010 post. “This 50-meter full-displacement motor yacht is the fourth project built in this series. In order to satisfy the owner’s request for more interior volume, Delta modified the hull tooling to both extend the length and widen the beam. Happy Days has an extreme beam of nearly 34 feet and a total of 7,500 square feet of living area.”

David and his mother, whose family home in La Jolla is called Foxhill, also published annual front-page letters on Christmas Day.

In a 2004 note, quoted by the Daily Breeze, he wrote:

“It’s easy to be depressed by the annual buildup of things to assail and pray over. Don’t we learn anything with the passage of time? Can't we use all our experience to make the world a better place? In fact, I think we have learned some things and, as a species, we have improved the world. Sure, there has been a lot of ‘one step forward and two steps back.’ Real tragedies occur every day but so does real progress.”

Former U-T editor in chief Herb Klein, who died in June 2012, wrote: 

To Helen Copley and Jim Copley, the title of publisher of the Union-Tribune was sacred, as important as that of chief executive officer of the Copley Newspapers. The Copleys, including David today, regarded that title as symbolic of their deep interest in the news and editorial content of the newspaper. They kept this distinctly separate from the business side of the operation.

David never married.

Stuart Smits November 24, 2012 at 02:29 PM
I am reminded or a highly relevant sentiment from Gian Carlo Menotti: "Hell begins on that day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, all of the gifts we wasted, of all that we might have done that we did not do."
muriel collingstontowski November 26, 2012 at 01:17 PM
I would love to read an authorized or unauthorized biography on the Copley's and a bio on Eleanor Widmer is way over due too. I think it's a shame that Helen Copley left a substantial endowment to KPBS yet the radio side continues with their nagging pleas of poverty. Phooey. Oh and I love your name --- Miriam ----.
John Smith December 04, 2012 at 10:50 PM
A rich, spoiled bastard...closeted homosexual who did nothing to support the struggle against AIDS...only loved for his money by the other super-rich elitists in La Jolla and San Diego
John Smith December 04, 2012 at 10:50 PM
A rich, spoiled bastard...closeted homosexual who did nothing to support the struggle against AIDS...only loved for his money by the other super-rich elitists in La Jolla and San Diego
Steve Odland December 04, 2012 at 11:13 PM
Well......All I can say is that I worked there for just shy of 8 years and he never even came into our department or said hello. He was a far cry from let's say......... Sam Walton the founder of Wal-Mart. I will say it was a much better place to work for when David owned it before he sold it to the morons of Platinum equity. (Now there is a real piece of dirty laundry) David always gave us great holiday parties and each year gave each employee a $50 gift card for groceries. That was a lot of fifties! In spite of his ties to Andrew Cunanan, his drinking, his exploits and the other things we read about, I believe David was a kind and gentle soul who wrestled his his inner demons like the rest of us. My he rest in Peace.

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