Dean Lesher, nationally lauded publisher of the Contra Costa Times and 26 other daily and weekly suburban newspapers in Northern California, died Thursday at his home in Orinda. He was 90.
Lesher, a civic and charitable leader who was also a trustee of the California State University system, had been released from a hospital May 7 after treatment for a buildup of fluid in the lungs.
A lawyer who became interested in newspapers through clients who owned them, Lesher was honored as outstanding publisher of 1983 by the National Newspaper Assn. at a White House ceremony.
In 1982, the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. recognized him as statewide publisher of the year and named the annual honor the Dean A. Lesher award. In 1980 and 1990, the organization voted his flagship Contra Costa Times the best suburban newspaper in California.
After graduation from Harvard Law School, Lesher set up a law practice in Kansas City, Mo. Taking a cue from clients, he bought his first newspaper, the Daily Tribune in Fremont, Neb., in 1938.
But California offered more business opportunities, he decided, and in 1941 he moved west and purchased the Merced Sun-Star.
In 1947, Lesher bought the semiweekly Walnut Creek Courier-Journal and in 1952 renamed it the Contra Costa Times, making it the centerpiece of what was to become his thriving chain, Lesher Newspapers Inc.
With faith that the suburban area 20 miles east of San Francisco would burgeon economically, Lesher experimented, printing his Times on green paper in 1958 to attract readers, and delivering the paper free and asking for voluntary subscriptions in 1962 to develop circulation.
The Contra Costa Times was the nation's first controlled circulation paper to go daily, to have complete news wire service, to include a Sunday supplement and to be listed in Standard Rate and Data, the bible of the newspaper industry. By 1985, the newspaper was completely converted from free to paid circulation, selling more than 90,000 copies a day.
Lesher's daily newspapers in Contra Costa and Alameda County now have a combined circulation of 200,000 on Sundays and about 183,000 daily.
Other dailies in the chain include the West County Times in Richmond, Valley Times in Pleasanton, San Ramon Valley Times in Danville, Daily Ledger-Post Dispatch in Antioch and Press-Tribune in Roseville.
Last year, Forbes magazine ranked Lesher among the 225 richest Americans and estimated his net worth at $360 million.
Lesher is survived by his wife, Margaret, seven children, Dean Lesher II, Melinda Lesher, Cynthia Lesher, Wendi Alves, Roxanne Gibson, Patricia Hilton and Jill Heidt, and 11 grandchildren.