Hale Champion, who as a senior member of Gov. Pat Brown's administration helped craft major public programs in California during a period of tremendous growth in the 1960s, died of prostate cancer Wednesday at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 85.
Champion entered public service in 1958 as press secretary to then newly elected Gov. Brown. He went on to become Brown's executive secretary and finance director and played a major role in shaping such policies as the Master Plan for Higher Education, which defined the missions of California's three tiers of public postsecondary education. He wrangled with the Legislature over other keystones of the Brown years, including the expansion of the freeway system and the building of the California aqueduct.
"He was a smart guy, a very congenial guy," Brown's son, Jerry, the former governor and current California attorney general, said Friday. "He was . . . one of two or three key players in my father's governorship."
Although a skilled political manager and policy advisor, Champion garnered his biggest headlines as the victim of a random crime in 1965 when he, his wife and young daughter were kidnapped from their Sacramento home by a pair of Oregon felons. The kidnapping triggered a massive manhunt and car chase along the California-Nevada border; the hostages were released two days later.
Born in Coldwater, Mich., on Aug. 27, 1922, he served in the Army during World War II, cutting short his education at the University of Michigan. After completing his military duty, he earned a bachelor's degree in English from Stanford University, where he studied under novelist Wallace Stegner and met his wife, Marie Ozine Tifft.
After college, Champion went to work as a political reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and was assigned to cover the 1958 governor's race between Brown, the Democratic nominee, and Republican U.S. Sen. William F. Knowland.
An article he wrote after the election defining the issues facing Brown caught the eye of the governor-elect, who hired Champion as his press secretary.
Champion became a valued advisor and was quickly promoted.
He had been state finance director for four years when two heavily armed ex-convicts, who were unaware of Champion's government position, broke into his home on July 7, 1965.
Champion, his wife and their 19-month-old daughter were released two days later after Champion sustained a minor wound in an exchange of gunfire at a gas station in Tonopah, Nev.
According to Champion's son, Thomas, who was sleeping unnoticed on the porch when the ex-cons broke in, the kidnapping was "never a very important episode in family history."
His father was "much more focused on the work" and later often joked that he was "treated worse in the Capitol" than he had been by his kidnappers.
A month after the kidnapping, the Watts riots exploded in Los Angeles. Champion tracked down Gov. Brown, who was on a trip in Athens, and briefed him on the tensions arising from a confrontation between a black motorist and police on a South Los Angeles street.
After Brown left the governor's office, Champion headed east to serve as a Kennedy Fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.
Calling himself "an inside man" who was more concerned with building institutions and managing them well than with reaping public glory, he filled a variety of high-level posts over the next 30 years.
He spent much of the 1970s as Harvard's vice president for financial affairs. Later he served as executive dean of its John F. Kennedy School of Government and brought many politicians to the school to teach.
He earned a reputation as a shrewd manager as undersecretary of health, education and welfare from 1977 to 1979 under President Carter.
In the late 1980s, when Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was running for president on the Democratic ticket, Champion was his chief of staff.
He later returned to Harvard to teach, retiring in 1995.
He spent his last years as primary caregiver for his wife, who has Alzheimer's disease, his son said.
He is also survived by a daughter, Katherine Champion Murphy, three grandchildren and a sister.