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Otis Chandler took a newspaper that had generated almost as much ridicule as revenue and turned it into one of the nation's best. (Los Angeles Times / October 15, 2014)

A Man of Many Passions Transformed The Times

Had Otis Chandler never worked a single day, his would have been a memorable life. An Olympic-caliber athlete, a champion weightlifter, an accomplished race car driver, big game hunter, surfer, cyclist, antique car and motorcycle collector, Chandler, who died Monday at 78, was a man whose avocations alone were the stuff of legend.

But Chandler did work, and in a remarkable 20-year span as publisher of the Los Angeles Times -- from 1960 to 1980 -- he reshaped this newspaper to an extent that has few, if any, parallels in the history of American journalism.

"No publisher in America improved a paper so quickly on so grand a scale, took a paper that was marginal in qualities and brought it to excellence as Otis Chandler did," David Halberstam wrote in "The Powers That Be," his 1979 book about the news media.

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FOR THE RECORD

In Tuesday's Section A, a caption that ran with the obituary of Otis Chandler identified a photo as having been taken in 1959, a year before he was named publisher of The Times. The photo, which showed Chandler in front of a blackboard in his office, was taken after he became publisher.

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Chandler's life spanned a period of head-spinning change in Southern California, and his death marks the end of an era. He was the last member of his family to run The Times and the last to exert a powerful influence over the life of the region.

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A Lion of Journalism

At his apex as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Otis Chandler received a message one morning from a fellow surfer. Waves were cresting at 12 to 15 feet off Dana Point, "the largest Southern California surf of my lifetime," he would recall 30 years later.

Chandler was a busy man, in the midst of catapulting The Times from mediocrity into the front ranks of American journalism. He was probably the most successful newspaper publisher in the country, charging briskly through a button-down world of meetings and speeches, presidents and corporate chieftains.

"Within an hour," he said, "I had gathered things up in my briefcase, told my secretary, 'Well, we can shine those afternoon meetings off,' and headed for Dana Point. "

That was Otis Chandler, a Southern California original, whose love of a challenge led him to big waves and mountain peaks and pushed him to transform a stodgy but successful family-run newspaper into a respected publishing giant.

Chandler, 78, died at 4 a.m. Monday at his home in Ojai of a degenerative illness called Lewy body disease, according to Tom Johnson, a former publisher of The Times who was acting as a spokesman for the Chandler family. Chandler's wife, Bettina, was at his bedside, and other family members had gathered in and around their home.

"Otis Chandler will go down as one of the most important figures in newspaper history," said Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times. "He built a newspaper that was as great as the city it covers. He set his sights on a goal -- making The Times one of the two or three great American papers -- and he pulled it off."

Lewy body disease is a brain disorder combining some of the most debilitating characteristics of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Victims suffer from severe dementia, as well as the stiffness, tremors and impaired movement characteristic of Parkinson's.

The disease is known for its fast progression. Chandler was diagnosed only seven months ago, his wife said. As recently as September, Chandler appeared fit, aside from a knee injury, and was lucid enough to sit for an hourlong interview and give a visitor a guided tour of his classic car and motorcycle museum in Oxnard.

Chandler was the great-grandson of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the fiery Civil War veteran who bought part-ownership of The Times in 1882, a year after it began publication, and was its publisher for 35 years. Chandler's grandfather and father followed Gen. Otis in the publisher's chair. The Chandlers had no rival as the most powerful family in Southern California. They owned vast landholdings and used their influence with elected officials and the business elite to shape the region's development.