Cearnal worked at several newspapers during his long career in journalism, including a stint at The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and another in Monroe, La., before he landed a job at the Chronicle.
"He had very high standards, very high journalistic standards," said his daughter, Gretchen Cearnal-Botha, who lives in the Houston suburb of Pearland.
She said her father was found dead in his Houston apartment on Tuesday. Police believe he suffered a heart attack, but the cause of death hasn't been conclusively determined, she said.
Charles Overby, who was executive editor of The Clarion Ledger when it won the Pulitzer for public service in 1983, remembered Cearnal as a hard-core newsman who was "fair but tough."
"Lee wouldn't take no for an answer, either from a reporter or from a news source," said Overby, the retired president and CEO of the Newseum in Washington. "He was dogged in his determination to get to the bottom of every story."
Cearnal is survived by his daughter, her husband, Mario Botha, and two granddaughters, Ellie Botha, 4, and Grace Leigh Botha, 2.
"He was just an amazing guy, he was passionate," his daughter said. "Ever since his grandchildren were born, they were the light of his life. He did everything