Former San Diego Union-Tribune publisher, philanthropist dies at age 60

Copley remembered as a 'gentle soul'

SAN DIEGO - Former San Diego Union-Tribune owner and publisher David Copley has died, hours after crashing his Aston Martin near his La Jolla home.

Copley, 60, died from an apparent heart attack at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, where he was taken after the crash, his friend, Dr. Robert Singer, told reporters outside the hospital. He called
Copley "a gentle soul" and "a great San Diegan and beloved citizen of the world."

Hugh Davies, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, said Copley was very passionate about art.

"This is something David was very excited about," said Davies, who was referring to a soon-to-open exhibit.

Copley crashed his Aston Martin into a parked car on Silverado Street near Eads Avenue at 6:15 p.m., said San Diego police Officer David Stafford. It appears the crash was the result of a medical emergency, he said.

Copley's family owned the Union-Tribune, part of a greater media empire that included newspapers and a wire service, for more than 80 years. In 2009, Copley sold the paper to a private equity firm, Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, and it was purchased last year by San Diego real estate investor Doug Manchester, who changed the name to U-T San Diego.

Davies says that was a very difficult decision for Copley.

"I think if he hadn't been born to a newspaper family, he probably would have had a very successful career in the arts," said Davies, "He will be sorely missed."

Before the crash, Copley, who had a heart transplant at Sharp Memorial Hospital in 2005 at age 53, left a Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego board meeting saying he didn't feel well, Singer said.

Davies was one of the last people to see Copley alive.

"I had had lunch with him on Monday and he was very quiet and seemed tired and I was a little concerned about him then, but at the meeting, he was lively," he said.

Copley had been leading the board meeting that ended at about 6 p.m.

"He told me he didn't feel well," said Davies. "I encouraged him just to go home."

Copley became publisher of the Union-Tribune in 2001, when his mother, Helen Copley, transferred leadership of the paper to him three years before she died.

Born David Hunt in San Diego in 1952, Copley took on the surname of his adoptive father, former publisher of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune newspapers James Copley, who wed Copley's mother in 1965. The Union and Tribune merged in 1992.

Under Copley's stewardship, the Union-Tribune and Copley News Service won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for their coverage of disgraced ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and the bribe-taking that sent him to prison.

Copley's own run-ins with the law were well-documented, as were the lavish parties he was known for hosting in his younger days. He was arrested several times for drunken driving beginning in the 1980s, once serving a week in a county labor camp, but the last such bust occurred a decade ago, in 2002.

In recent years, Copley continued his family's philanthropy, funding Broadway musicals and Christo art installations. He also donated $5 million to Sharp Healthcare following his heart transplant and $6 million to UCLA to develop a center for costume design.

The Copley family is behind many familiar landmarks in San Diego, including the Copley Family YMCA, Copley Symphony Hall, Copley Plaza in Balboa Park, buildings at the University of San Diego, the establishment of UC San Diego and the new Central Library in downtown San Diego.

"It goes on and on what this family has done for this city and he is the last of that great line," Davies said.

In 2010, the family's foundation gave more than $5.6 million in donations, according to tax returns. In 2005, Copley was No. 283 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans.

Davies' chair as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is permanently endowed, thanks to the Copley family. 

How the Copley legacy will continue through the family's foundation is not yet clear. 

Retired Union-Tribune editor Karin Winner, who worked closely with Copley, told U-T San Diego that 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."

"I know that it was 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," she said. "I'm really glad that he had the past few years to live his life the way
he wanted to."

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