San Diego Union-Tribune publisher David Copley stands by after the announcement of the staff Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in this April 17, 2006
San Diego Union-Tribune publisher David Copley stands by after the announcement of the staff Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in this April 17, 2006 file photo taken in San Diego. Copley died Tuesday Nov. 20, 2012 after a car crash near his home in La Jolla, Calif. according to the San Diego Union Tribune. (The Associated Press)

Friends and acquaintances on Wednesday remembered David C. Copley as a quiet but generous man whose role in publishing dozens of family-owned newspapers - including the Daily Breeze - made him a household name in Southern California.

Copley, 60, the last in a line of San Diego-based publishers, died Tuesday night after he lost control of his Aston Martin and crashed into several parked cars less than a mile from his La Jolla home.

The cause of the crash wasn't immediately clear, but police said it may have stemmed from a medical emergency. Copley had a heart transplant in 2005.

"David was soft-spoken, generous and cared deeply about the Copley newspaper legacy," said Phillip Sanfield, former executive editor of the Daily Breeze.

"He always seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight, but nonetheless, he was committed to his newspapers."

When the Breeze was sold - followed by the sale of Copley papers in Illinois and lastly, in 2009, the San Diego Union-Tribune - the industry was rapidly changing, Sanfield said.

"I'm sure it was not something he wanted to do," he said. "It must have been heartbreaking, but the industry just kind of fell apart around him."

Former Daily Breeze publisher Art Wible of Manhattan Beach - who also served on the Copley board of directors for a number of years - said the decision to sell was a difficult one for Copley. His mother, Helen, headed up the company until 2001.


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"He cared about his people and the newspapers, that was always very obvious to everyone," Wible said. "It was pretty clear that the business was not going to be the same going into the future. For a family who had invested a lot in the papers, he wanted to make sure they didn't lose everything they'd put into it.

"It was time, but it was also a very painful decision. The last person to say yes was David."

Copley was the adopted grandson of Col. Ira Copley, who built a newspaper empire that stretched from California to Illinois.

At the time the Breeze was sold in late 2006, David Copley was the company's CEO and president. Locally, Copley Press Inc. also owned The Beach Reporter and the Palos Verdes Peninsula News.

The gem of the empire was the San Diego Union-Tribune, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

Still in his 20s and the company's heir apparent, Copley was dispatched to work a summer stint at the Daily Breeze in Torrance.

His father, Jim Copley, wanted his adopted son to learn the family business from the ground up.

"He believed in sending his children to the papers to learn," said Dennis Benner, whose job it was to show the young Copley around the Breeze's advertising department.

The son of a wealthy San Diego family who already owned three Aston Martins and a Rolls Royce, Copley no doubt found his time in the trenches eye-opening.

Benner recalls taking Copley along to call on an advertiser who was unhappy with a mistake the paper had made on the expiration date for one of her coupons.

"I walked in with David and she hit me right in the solar plexus. It knocked the wind out of me," Benner said. "I remember just trying to catch my breath."

Copley was passionate about the arts and contributed millions of dollars to various causes, including $6 million to UCLA to develop a center for costume design.

Copley and his family were major benefactors of art and charities in San Diego and the family name is on many of the city's cultural institutions, including its symphony hall and modern art museum.

donna.littlejohn@dailybreeze.com

Follow Donna Littlejohn on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/donnalitteljohn

The Associated Press contributed to this article