SAN DIEGO — At the San Diego Union-Tribune, they recall how publisher Helen K. Copley would stride into her Monday morning meetings with the newspaper's editorial board, regal and clearly the woman in charge.
In tow, usually several paces behind her, shuffled David C. Copley, her shy, overweight son. The young newspaper executive often wore his wraparound sunglasses. Only rarely did he speak. And sporadic headlines in the family's own newspaper -- from drunk driving convictions to an early heart attack, to his absorption with the smallest design details in his La Jolla home -- reinforced the notion that the younger Copley might make less than a stalwart heir to one of America's last family-owned newspaper empires.
Distant murmurs about the future of the house of Copley have been a San Diego staple for years. But the chatter has roared to the fore with two watershed events -- the death of Helen Copley a little more than a year ago and David Copley's heart transplant this summer.
Now journalists inside the Union-Tribune and leaders in America's seventh-largest city wonder: Is Copley up to the task? Or will he sell, ending a 100-year-old newspaper dynasty?
At 53, Copley is a billionaire, one of San Diego's biggest philanthropists, a widely traveled patron of the arts. He is also an enigma. He rarely speaks in public and is mostly known for his occasional appearances on the society pages.
"The assumption always had been that when Helen died, he would sell," said Peter Kaye, once the No. 2 editor at the Union-Tribune. "His interest seemed to be in theater, in art, in his parties and in fast cars."
Neil Morgan, a columnist fired last year after more than half a century with the newspaper, added: "Rumor is still very strong that they're three months away from making a move of some kind." The veteran newsman, a friend to two generations of the newspaper family, said those theories had Copley retiring to long sojourns on the giant yacht he is having built in Seattle.
But those closest to the publishing scion said similar, and similarly inaccurate, predictions were made about his mother 32 years ago.
"People have always projected their own narratives on the family," said Harold W. "Hal" Fuson Jr., chief legal officer for the Copley Press. "What is it that makes them think David Copley is so hot to get out of this business, a business that he has grown up in and that has provided him a more than adequate living?"
Characteristically, Copley declined to be interviewed for this report. But after returning home from heart surgery in late June to his palm-fronted hillside compound in La Jolla, he e-mailed his employees.
"The Copley family first entered the newspaper business in December 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt was president and my grandfather, Ira, had aspirations to be a congressman," Copley wrote in the message, later printed in the Union-Tribune. "As we celebrate a century in the newspaper business, I want nothing more than to be a good custodian of a great legacy."
Newspaper empires and family legacies weren't even a speck on the horizon when the future Helen Copley arrived in San Diego from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in late 1951. Then known as Helen Kinney, the young woman had been working a series of clerical jobs and in a dairy around her hometown when she unexpectedly became pregnant.
She fled the Midwest for San Diego -- taking with her a new surname from a marriage that lasted just two weeks and high hopes for a better future in the growing city. Not long after her arrival on Jan. 31, 1952, she gave birth to a son, David.
With no husband and only a modest job selling tickets for the Santa Fe railroad, her prospects seemed uncertain. But an acquaintance with some newspapermen led to a job at the Union-Tribune Publishing Co. and, less than a year later, to a job in the executive suite.
Helen Hunt served as the quietly competent secretary to publisher Jim Copley for a dozen years. Then, in 1965, she married the boss.
When Copley died in 1973, the smart money expected quiet Helen Copley to let the men around her run the business, which included a string of papers in Illinois and the Los Angeles area. But the widow Copley surprised them all by taking firm control. Before long, New West magazine and writer Gail Sheehy dubbed her the "West Coast Cinderella."
Former Copley News Service Editor Bob Witty recalled David Copley several years ago, acknowledging how fortunate he and his mother had been. Said Witty: "I think David understands that he had a gift there, a station in life."
That station was not necessarily a comfortable one. Although he had been adopted by Jim Copley and designated as successor to his mother at the newspaper, his position did not become secure until the conclusion of a protracted probate fight.