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)

"But he never interfered with an editorial decision," Thomas said, "never tried to tell me how a story should be written or edited or played or how a page should look."

Missteps and Controversy

Chandler's reign as publisher was not an uninterrupted, 20-year victory lap. Some critics felt that his zeal for national recognition led The Times to underemphasize local news, particularly about minority communities.

Chandler contributed to that perception in 1978, when he responded to a television interviewer's questions about the paper's coverage of black and Latino communities by saying it was difficult to get those groups to read The Times.

"It's not their kind of newspaper," he said. "It's too big, it's too stuffy. If you will, it's too complicated."

Chandler later insisted that he hadn't meant to demean blacks and Latinos, but the remark haunted him -- and the paper -- for many years.

Critics also thought his position at the top of the city's power structure prevented The Times from aggressively investigating that establishment. When The Times consistently provided editorial support for various downtown redevelopment projects, civic activists were quick to say the projects would enhance the value of the Chandler family's real estate interests there.

Chandler always denied any conflict of interest, and he invariably emerged from these controversies with his reputation for personal integrity intact. But in 1972, he suffered his most damaging blow -- and it was, to a significant extent, self-inflicted.

Jack Burke, Chandler's close friend since their days together at Stanford, had assembled an exploratory oil-drilling company called GeoTek in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Chandler knew and trusted Burke. The two had hunted together, and Burke was the godfather of Chandler's eldest daughter, Cathleen.

When Burke asked Chandler if he'd like to invest in his company -- and introduce Burke to other potential investors among the publisher's wealthy friends -- Chandler was happy to comply.

According to official documents, he wrote and telephoned a number of such people, including Evelle Younger, the former state attorney general and Los Angeles County district attorney.

Many invested with Burke, who raised more than $30 million among 2,200 individuals over eight years. Chandler himself invested more than $200,000 of his personal funds. But he didn't disclose to other investors that he received $109,000 in finder's fees and $373,000 in promotional shares of GeoTek stock for his efforts. When Burke was accused of fraud, Chandler too became a target of civil legal proceedings.

In August 1972, the Wall Street Journal broke the story, which dragged on for several years before a federal court sentenced Burke to 30 months in prison. The Securities and Exchange Commission dropped all charges against Chandler in 1975, but the case cost him more than $1 million in legal fees, and it had a devastating emotional effect on him.

He had family money, but he had looked on GeoTek as another chance to prove he could succeed on his own, and he wound up embarrassed and forced by the exposure to return his stock and finder's fees. For the first time in his life, he found his personal integrity seriously questioned.

"I was more upset with myself than with Jack Burke," he said years later. "This was the only big investment I ever made, and I didn't do any investigation of it beforehand. How could I have been so stupid? I apologized to my wife and my children and my mother and father and everyone on the board and all my department heads."

The GeoTek affair also damaged Chandler physically. For all his seeming calm and control throughout his life, he had suffered from sporadic bouts of insomnia and intestinal pain -- diagnosed as a spastic colon -- ever since he became publisher. The GeoTek debacle helped greatly exacerbate the colon problem.

Chandler had his own ways of blowing off such stress -- like getting behind the wheel of a turbocharged Porsche. Because he had five children and heavy corporate responsibilities, his wife tried to dissuade him from this favored leisure-time activity.

But he persisted and in 1978 -- at age 50, after years of what he called "Walter Mitty fantasies about becoming a race car driver" -- finally got a chance to race professionally. He entered a six-hour endurance race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., teamed with John Thomas, his motorcycle buddy and Porsche mechanic, who had long raced cars himself.

For several years, the pair had enjoyed a Saturday ritual. They would race their cars down the Pasadena Freeway at 140 mph in the predawn hours en route to weightlifting sessions at the Times gym and double cheeseburgers at Tommy's, just west of downtown. Periodically, Chandler rented the now-defunct Riverside Raceway for a day so he, Thomas and their friends could race their cars.