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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.

Paula J November 21, 2012 at 06:41 AM
I am shocked at the lack of impartiality in this article. David Copley did great things for San Diego and this article seems to only talk about his faults. Preston Turegano seems to have some resentment towards Copley about his forced early retirement. I am absolutely disgusted with Patch but then again, this is the type of 'journalism' I come to expect Patch.
Libi Uremovic November 21, 2012 at 01:53 PM
wow, i read the same article and thought it was very positive....maybe you read it wrong... turegano's reference to copley resigning and not backing off an investigation is a good thing... "...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.”..." if you're referring to the above statement - it's an honest viewpoint ....money didn't buy happiness for copley....that's not a bad observation
Patricia November 21, 2012 at 02:14 PM
If I remember right, and if you look at him he was Helen's biological son adopted by James Copley!!! He looked like his mom!!!
Sabrina November 21, 2012 at 02:53 PM
I agree with Libi...I felt that overall, the article spoke well and highly of David. May his soul rest in peace I pray for the comfort of his family and friends.
Patricia November 21, 2012 at 03:18 PM
A great loss. He seemed to really appreciate life and tried to make a difference.
Karen Hamilton November 21, 2012 at 03:30 PM
I'm speechless. What a tragic ending to such an accomplished life. He was a fixture in la jolla and will be sorely missed. RIP, David.
Libi Uremovic November 21, 2012 at 04:16 PM
if a man's got to go ....spending his last moments crusing his aston martin through the hills of la jolla is about as good as it gets......i'm i right boys..??
SJ November 21, 2012 at 07:02 PM
NO..Libi,.you're wrong, having an Aston Martin or a garbage bag for a casket is all the same in the end. Not talking about Mr. Copley, but financial excess is available to the most henious in this world. Any real man would rather go jumping on grenade to save a friend, exploding on a space craft that was attempting to expand human discovery or even in a mishap falling from the mast on the Star of India while working on a worthwhile hobby. This riches, room service reality show lives that are sold to us all are not even worth the traditional handful of dust SJ.
Miriam Raftery November 21, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Actually I thought the story was kind in omitting issues that the Reader has reported in the past, including three drunk driving convictions. Copley did good for the community but was no saint. Heoversaw the paper when it violated the rights of all freelance writers by stealing thousands of their copywrited works and selling them online. When caught they tried to coerce writers to sign a retroactive rights contract with no money. Those who refused lost their livelihoods and were banned from writing for the newspaper. The theft and the UT's refusal under Copley to do the right thing forced freelancers to file a class action lawsuit in which I'm a named plaintiff; since they stole several hundred of my works. it's been 12 years in the courts now, still haggling over the amount though there is NO dispute that the writers are owed money, even the defendants now admit that since the US Supreme Court ruled in an identical case for writers. Sad to see that while Copley lived the rich life with his mansion complete with gilded ceiling and fancy sports cars, long before his health problems, he refused to treat fairly the writers who made the publication a success in its heydey. At least one has died without ever getting a cent. Others needed those funds to put kids through college, fund treatment of illnessess, mortgages etc. No amount of good works makes up for this mistreatment of hard working people.
Paula J November 21, 2012 at 07:53 PM
I read the article right after it was published, without any additional edits. At the time, the article did not include quotes from Laura Wolfe, Karin Winner, Doug Manchester, or the Daily Breeze. The article ended after mentioning his yacht and did not include the quotes I mentioned above. It was much improved after Ken Stone was added on the byline.
Libi Uremovic November 21, 2012 at 08:03 PM
a 'real man'...? if it's all the same in the end why bother to live out 'real man' fantasies.... i think god whispered in his ear: 'hey copley, you've got 30 minutes to live...is this really the last thing you want to see and do on this earth? ' there's nothing wrong with a person dying happy....or non-'real'...
Maura Larkins November 21, 2012 at 09:07 PM
I agree with Libi that this article is extremely positive; it didn't breathe a word of David's problems with the law. While it is true that David was Helen Copley's only biological child, the story was kind and generous in that it avoided the sordid tale of how Helen Copley forced James Copley's other adopted children, Michael and Janice, out of the family. Each human being brings something special to the world, and this article focused on that.
Things I Learned November 21, 2012 at 09:24 PM
Protocol requires that only commenters pee on his grave.
Ed Sorrels November 21, 2012 at 09:49 PM
I Long ago learned a terriable reality, Life is a terminal disease ! Live it so you won't be embarrased to die !
Doug Curlee November 21, 2012 at 09:57 PM
david was an enormously complicated man..you sometimes got the idea he wasn't all that comfortable in his own skin.. but in the end, he established his role in life, and played it out the way he felt it should be played..as well as he could.. that's not a bad epitaph.. he did it his way.. doug
Margo Schwab November 21, 2012 at 10:40 PM
David was a very kind and loyal friend. I saw him do many acts of kindness that were not public....he did many good things for the community without his name on it.
Band Diego November 22, 2012 at 06:29 PM
"When the chimes ring five, six, and seven, We'll be right in seventh heaven. We're gonna rock around the clock tonight, We're gonna rock, rock, rock, 'till broad daylight, We're gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight."
Ed Sorrels November 23, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Libi, Those are only fantasy's for some other's of us have tried ti live out lives so that we can expierence the many wonderful thing's that can be accomplished, One of my favorite saying's is by George Carlin and it Goes thus " I have no intention of tiptoeing thru life only to arrive safely at death" and living thus I will die happy !
John Haupt November 24, 2012 at 10:07 AM
As many baby boomers will soon learn "He who dies with the most toys....is still dead". Live life to the fullest! It has nothing to do with materialism.
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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