Publisher Helen K. Copley was remembered for her business acumen and civic mindedness.
San Diego was a pleasant little city known mainly for its zoo, its beaches and its large naval presence when a shy young woman, fresh out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, arrived here as a clerk in 1951.
There was little reason then to think that over the next half-century the town would become the seventh most populous city in America, or that she would become one of the most important women in American newspapers.
San Diego and Helen K. Copley grew up together.
“She was the face of San Diego to the nation,” former mayor and close friend Maureen O’Connor said.
Mrs. Copley died Wednesday at her La Jolla home. She was 81. The cause of death was pneumonia, brought on by complications from a stroke.
Yesterday friends and admirers recalled a woman of many facets, most of which she kept far from public view, occupying San Diego’s spotlight for decades even as she sought to avoid it.
They spoke of her gift for decisiveness, her graciousness with people, her tough-minded business acumen, her willingness to take risks for the city she loved and her penchant for giving.
“There wasn’t one area of San Diego she didn’t touch,” O’Connor said.
Helen K. Copley photo gallery
“She was a very good listener,” said Hanna H. Gray, the former president of the University of Chicago who served for several years with Mrs. Copley on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute board of trustees.
“She made people feel like she was learning from them when it was likely the other way around.”
Mrs. Copley could dine at the finest restaurants anywhere in the world, but equally enjoyed a fast-food burger and fries. She was a fan of television quiz shows and played armchair detective on real San Diego criminal cases, using only the facts she gleaned from press reports.
Claire F. Keyes, 80, of Milton, Mass., met Mrs. Copley in 1951 when both worked in the accounting division of Marston’s department store. They were friends for more than 50 years.
“There are very few who would know the soul of Helen, her innermost thoughts,” Keyes said. “I don’t think she had too many friends, but when she made them, they were forever.”
Even after Mrs. Copley acquired wealth and prominence, she remained the same person, Keyes said.
“I noticed no change in her at all. That was one of her finer points,” she said.
She was a pillar of San Diego high society who could take it on herself to clean up a messy ladies room in her evening gown – and get the mayor of San Diego to help her do it.
“She didn’t think she was better than anyone else,” O’Connor said, “but she was an example for everyone else.”
The example extended nationwide.
“The loss of Helen Copley is a loss to our nation,” former President Gerald Ford said. “I admired her immensely. She was a great publisher and a great patriot.”
Herbert G. Klein, who retired as Copley Newspapers editor in chief last year, met her three years after he joined the Copley organization in 1950.
Two of San Diego’s leading philanthropists also were close friends. Joan B. Kroc accompanied Mrs. Copley when she became the first woman to receive the Boys and Girls Clubs’ Golden Achievement Award in May 1990. James S. Copley had received the same award 26 years earlier. Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s Corp. founder Ray Kroc, died in October.
“Helen loved the newspaper business,” said Klein, noting that her greatest concern was not the bottom line but rather creating a quality product.
Former congressman and ex-San Diego Chargers quarterback Jack Kemp compared Mrs. Copley to legendary Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
“Her passing is a great loss to not only San Diego but to the country,” Kemp said. “She’s the Kay Graham of the West Coast – a great newspaperwoman and a great woman in her own right.”
Burl Osborne, chairman of the board of The Associated Press, said, “Helen Copley was a defining figure in this world, and we all are lesser because of her loss.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised her as a “remarkable public servant.”
“Helen served as a trailblazer and role model for women of all ages,” the governor said.
He ordered flags at the state Capitol flown at half-staff yesterday in Mrs. Copley’s memory.
“My first thought is adjectives: gentle, thoughtful, helpful, patient, sincere, strong, dependable,” said Victor “Brute” Krulak, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general and former vice president of Copley newspapers.
“I guess I’ve known her for 45 years and have never been disappointed. I would characterize her as a consummate lady,” he said.
When she retired in 2001, Mrs. Copley recalled that “it was very difficult to handle the tragedy of Jim’s early death while attempting to master the helm of a complex business.”
“I had plenty of help navigating some very choppy waters, and I am very proud that we managed to maintain our tradition of independence and establish a firm financial footing for the future.”
“She’s the Kay Graham of the West Coast – a great newspaperwoman and a great woman in her own right “
JACK KEMP, former congressman and ex-Chargers quarterback
She published The San Diego Union-Tribune and its predecessors for nearly three decades before turning over The Copley Press Inc. to her son, David C. Copley.
“I am very proud to be carrying on Jim’s and mother’s legacy,” David Copley said yesterday. “Mom was a great teacher, so when she decided to retire, the transition was not that hard. We used to talk every day, and up until very recently she was my most important adviser and my biggest supporter.”
Born Margaret Helen Kinney on Nov. 28, 1922, in Cedar Rapids, she began work as a baby sitter at age 12. After high school, she joined the accounting office of the Borden milk company.
After enlisting in the WAVES, then the women’s branch of the Navy, and being stationed in San Francisco, she enrolled at Hunter College in New York City in 1944. A friend from the WAVES, Donna “Donnie” M. Lessard, was her roommate at Hunter and eventually became her sister-in-law when Donnie married her brother Frank.
Helen Kinney returned to Cedar Rapids.
In late 1951, after the failure of a brief marriage, she moved with her mother to San Diego where David was born the following January.
After Marston’s she took a job at the Santa Fe Railroad. From her desk, she could see the Union-Tribune Publishing Co., near Horton Plaza. Within a year she was working there.
In 1953 she became one of Jim Copley’s secretaries. He had been chief executive officer since 1947, after the death of his father, Col. Ira C. Copley.
The Copleys married in 1965. “I’ll never know what he saw in me,” she told Gail Sheehy in 1976 for a profile in New West magazine. “I was so pathetically shy. Unless it was because he’d been so shy himself.”
Longtime friend Anne Evans, chairwoman of Evans Hotels, remembers Mrs. Copley for her loyalty to the city, the country and her newspapers and her happy marriage to Jim Copley.
“During her years with Jim, Helen just seemed radiant,” Evans said. “They had wonderful times together, and it showed on her and on Jim.”
Jim Copley died of brain cancer Oct. 6, 1973, the night the presses published the first edition of The San Diego Union from the company’s new printing plant and office in Mission Valley.
Most insiders had expected Mrs. Copley to remain in the background, yielding corporate leadership to one of her husband’s male lieutenants.
The insiders were mistaken. The company was now hers to run – and she ran it, quietly but with a will.
Ronald Reagan benefited from the warm support of the Copleys as president and as California governor, and as a campaigner he considered San Diego his “lucky city.” Reagan twice visited La Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs to address Copley newspaper executives.
Faced with millions of dollars in inheritance taxes, she consolidated operations and cut the number of company directors by half. In addition, she sold the corporate jet and the Aurora, Ill., mansion where the Copley newspaper chain had been founded.
“If there ever was any doubt about who was calling the tune, it was dispelled soon after Jim Copley’s death,” Forbes magazine reported 18 months later.
“I never dreamed when I was a secretary that one day I would be a publisher,” Mrs. Copley told Editor & Publisher in 1975. “But I learned things along the way on the job.”
In a March 19, 1990, story focusing on powerful women in the Sunbelt, Time magazine expressed surprise that such a “reticent, private figure” would prove to be such a “hands-on publisher.”
Longtime friend Dan McKinnon, who owned country music radio station KSON and currently is the president of North American Airlines, recalled the challenge facing Mrs. Copley when she took control of her late husband’s newspapers, and what she did about it.
“When Jim Copley died, the newspaper had a lot of expenses going on,” McKinnon said. “She had to come in there and do some radical surgery, make some tough economic and personnel decisions, which she did. And it put the newspaper on a solid economic healthy footing. But it was tough.”
When Mrs. Copley asked Gerald Warren to become editor of The San Diego Union in 1975, he came with a laundry list of changes he wanted to make.
“She had a list, too,” recalled Warren from his home in Virginia. When they got together, they found the same item at the head of both lists: “Hire an ombudsman.”
The Union became one of the first newspapers to employ a readers representative to respond to complaints.
Another item on both his and Mrs. Copley’s wish lists was to increase news coverage of black, Latino and other minority groups in San Diego. With Mrs. Copley’s blessing, “we started really reaching out to minority populations. It was tough. We had not been a very welcoming paper to black faces and Latino faces,” Warren recalled.
Few of her decisions were more difficult than the 1992 merger of the Union and Tribune, a move that led to juggling of staffs and cost some staffers their jobs.
“Helen’s decision to merge the papers was a painful one because she’d promised Jim she would keep them both going, but like so many business decisions she had to make on behalf of this company, she had an uncanny instinct for knowing the right thing to do,” said Karin Winner, editor of the Union-Tribune.
“We merged the papers with lightning speed so her employees weren’t left in suspense about their job status for any longer than necessary … that was her greatest concern. It said a lot about who she was. She was the kind of boss most editors dream of – and the kind of friend most people yearn for. I was the lucky one on both counts.”
Mrs. Copley was unwavering in her determination that the newspaper not become one more link in the chain of U.S. newspapers owned by corporate conglomerates.
“Helen had such a unique ability to think through issues,” said Gene Bell, chief executive officer of the Union-Tribune. “Her integrity and caring personality made her so special as a leader and friend of everyone who worked in the company.”
The La Jolla-based media company owns nine daily newspapers and other publications in California, Illinois and Ohio. The company also operates the Union-Tribune’s Web site, SignOnSanDiego.com.
During her tenure, Copley newspapers won two Pulitzer Prizes.
Mrs. Copley introduced new technology and broadened news coverage of her San Diego papers to reflect the region’s development into the sixth most populous county in the United States.
Politically, Mrs. Copley shared her husband’s conservative outlook and his support for the Republican Party. Those views are reflected on the editorial pages of Copley newspapers.
“Helen served as a trailblazer and role model for women of all ages.”
GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER
When the Republican National Convention came to San Diego in 1996, Mrs. Copley helped underwrite the event. The night before the convention, she and David Copley, the Union-Tribune and Copley News Service sponsored a gala party with a dazzling fireworks display over San Diego Bay.
Despite the newspaper’s conservative reputation, Klein noted that some of Mrs. Copley’s closest friends were Democrats – including the late philanthropist Joan Kroc, former Mayor O’Connor and publisher Graham.
When NBC’s “Today” show visited San Diego in 1989, Mrs. Copley, Kroc and O’Connor were interviewed as “the three people who could make it happen.”
In 1993 Copley Press Inc. ranked 12th in a list of the 500 largest U.S. businesses owned by women, making Mrs. Copley one of the wealthiest women in America. She capitalized on that to become one of San Diego’s biggest philanthropists.
Sometimes inspired by stories she read in her newspapers, Mrs. Copley’s charity ranged from helping secure a home for the San Diego Symphony and underwriting the library at the University of San Diego to being a major benefactor of a new animal shelter.
She was chairman of the James S. Copley Foundation, which supports many educational and charitable endeavors. She also was a member of numerous local organizations over the years, most notably the board of the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation from 1973 to 1984.
Nationally, she was one of eight trustees appointed in 1984 to oversee the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, whose founder, billionaire Howard Hughes, had died without naming someone to run it.
During Mrs. Copley’s 11 years on the HHMI board, the institute took shape as the $11.3 billion biomedical research and education organization it is today. In 1985 the HHMI board established a research center at the University of California San Diego, involving researchers from the university and the Salk Institute.
Mrs. Copley took pride in the contributions she was able to make to San Diego, through her newspapers and civic involvement.
The campus library at the University of San Diego was dedicated to the Copleys in 1984 after Mrs. Copley chaired the university’s first multimillion-dollar capital improvements drive.
“She was just very much behind the institution at a time when it really really needed the kind of help that she provided,” said Author E. Hughes, who retired in 1995 after 24 years as president of the university.
“It was more than financial help, it was a matter of spending time with me and with other trustees, going out to solicit new board members (and) trying to get the institution on a very solid base, which she did,” Hughes said yesterday.
In 1992, David Copley surprised his mother with a birthday party at Mille Fleurs restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe, which he decorated with more than 1,000 white roses. Close friends – Graham, Kroc, O’Connor, advice columnists Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers) and Pauline Philips (Dear Abby) – and family were part of the celebration.
As a publisher, Mrs. Copley took pride in the Pulitzer Prizes won by the afternoon Tribune in 1979 and 1987.
The then-Evening Tribune was honored for staff coverage of the 1978 PSA crash. The collision over North Park, involving a Pacific Southwest Airlines Boeing 707 and a Cessna, killed 144 people 20 minutes before the afternoon newspaper’s first deadline. In 1987, a Pulitzer was awarded to Jonathan Freedman for editorials about illegal immigration.
In September 1991, Mrs. Copley responded to economic pressures by announcing she would merge the Union and Tribune.
The new San Diego Union-Tribune was delivered Feb. 2, 1992, with Mrs. Copley promising that it would be “one of the most interesting and complete newspapers in the nation.”
The Union-Tribune is the third-largest newspaper in California and the 24th-largest newspaper in the United States. The week it was launched, Mrs. Copley had a luncheon for hundreds of community leaders to mark the occasion.
In 1996 Mrs. Copley presided over the largest acquisition in Copley Press history by buying the Peoria Journal Star and the Register-Mail in Galesburg, Ill., for about $174 million.
Added to the State Journal-Register in Springfield and The Courier in Lincoln, the acquisition made The Copley Press the dominant newspaper publisher in central Illinois.
Patrick Coburn, publisher of the State Journal-Register, marveled at Mrs. Copley’s ability to take up where her husband left off.
“I don’t know anyone else who could have done it,” he said. “She shared the same values as Jim Copley … and she turned out to be a very strong leader with compassion and good taste.”
In 2000, the company acquired The Repository in Canton, Ohio, and, in January 2001, two other Ohio newspapers serving nearby Massillon, Dover and New Philadelphia. Also that year, the company sold its newspapers in the Chicago suburbs.
The company’s other Southern California holdings are the Daily Breeze in Torrance, the Sun in Borrego Springs and the Palos Verdes Peninsula News.
In retirement, Mrs. Copley remained an active member of the board of directors and trustee of the family trusts that control the company stock. She held the titles of chairman emeritus of The Copley Press and publisher emeritus of the Union-Tribune.
Mrs. Copley was listed by Forbes magazine last year as 279th among the nation’s richest Americans with assets estimated at $960 million.
She resided at Foxhill, the French Provincial home and gardens Jim Copley built in the hills above La Jolla.
Mrs. Copley enjoyed opening Foxhill for charitable fund-raisers and welcoming foreign dignitaries, national political figures and friends from the worlds of business and the arts.
Pete Wilson, the former U.S. senator and California governor who was mayor of San Diego from 1971 to 1983, recalled how much Mrs. Copley enjoyed entertaining.
“She was held in high regard by some of the best thinkers in the country who enjoyed her hospitality when they came through San Diego,” he said. “She loved to talk about history, politics and what’s best for San Diego.”
The James S. Copley Library in La Jolla, founded in 1966 as a resource for scholars and historians, includes a large collection of documents, books and pamphlets relating to the American Revolutionary War, the Southwest and various historical figures.
Richard Reilly was curator of the library at its inception.
“She was without a doubt the most intelligent human being in the business world I ever knew,” Reilly said. “She was always faulted for being standoffish. But she was not. She was shy, very, very, very shy.”
Literacy was one of Mrs. Copley’s main causes. She helped launch the San Diego Council on Literacy in 1986 and continued as a key benefactor.
In 1990, a $2.5 million gift to the beleaguered San Diego Symphony resulted in renaming its hall in downtown San Diego as Copley Symphony Hall. Her gift helped clear $4.3 million in debts that remained after a renovation of the concert hall in 1985. A $500,000 donation by Mrs. Copley in 1995 benefited the symphony’s fund-raising campaign to put the organization back on track.
In May 1998, the Copley family and the James. S. Copley Foundation contributed $1.5 million to permanently endow the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.
In 1995, her $1 million gift to USD established a scholarship to honor Hughes.
After reading in the Union-Tribune about deplorable conditions at the central San Diego animal shelter, Mrs. Copley pledged $2 million to a rebuilding campaign, joining with Joan Kroc, who also gave $2 million. The Kroc-Copley Animal Shelter bears the two friends’ names.
Mrs. Copley made her gift toward a new shelter contingent on the city, county and private groups contributing like amounts toward the $8 million cost of a state-of-the-art facility. Providing matching grants for worthy public causes, Mrs. Copley believed, encouraged donations from the people of San Diego.
Often her gifts went to needy individuals and were rarely announced.
Mrs. Copley was active on various industry, patriotic and civic committees at the local, state and national level over the years.
In 1974 she became the first woman elected to the board of directors of the California Chamber of Commerce. The following year then-President Ford appointed Mrs. Copley to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year 1975. And in 1978, then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to the Commission of Government Reform.
But for a self-described “very private person,” public speeches were anathema. A speech coach from San Diego State University provided private lessons, but she said she never was able to shake those jitters.
For the most part, it was Mrs. Copley’s actions that spoke volumes. Her success in maintaining her husband’s business, along with her commitment to community service and philanthropy, resulted in many honors. Among them was the National Distinguished Community Service Award from the Anti Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith in 1986.
She also received honorary doctorates from Coe College in 1977 and from USD in 1982. She was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws in 1979 from Pepperdine University.
The Horatio Alger Association recognized her work at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in 1990, noting that Mrs. Copley “overcame many obstacles to build one of the largest and most highly respected newspaper chains in the country.”
In her acceptance speech, Mrs. Copley said the principles instilled by her family in Iowa had a lasting impact. “These are the principles founded on the precepts of honesty, hard work, giving one’s best effort and appreciating freedom for all its opportunities,” she said.
Mrs. Copley’s mother, Margaret Ellen Kinney of La Jolla, died in 1995 at age 100. Her father, Frederick Kinney, had died in 1947. A brother, Joseph P. Kinney, died in 1990.
Survivors include her son, David, of La Jolla; a sister, Mary Frances Davison of Santa Maria; and a brother, Frank E. Kinney of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She also has two stepchildren from her husband’s first marriage, Michael Copley of San Diego and Janice Obre of New York City.
Services will be private.
The family suggests donations to the Kroc-Copley Animal Shelter, ATTN: Director’s Office, 5480 Gaines St., San Diego, CA 92110.
Staff writers Diane Bell, Gerry Braun, Cheryl Clark, Karen Kucher, Diane Lindquist, John Marelius, Jeff Ristine, Terry Rodgers, Jack Williams and Eleanor Yang and library researchers Amanda Boushey, Danielle Cervantes, JoAnne Glover, Michelle Gilchrist, Dick Harrington, Tom Stinson, Anne Magill and Sharon Reeves contributed to this report.