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 it was Otis Chandler -- a world-class shotputter in college and a fierce competitor in every arena he entered -- who took charge of a paper that for decades had generated almost as much ridicule as revenue and transformed it into one of the best in the country. He also made it more profitable than ever.

"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.

"You cannot overstate the importance of Otis Chandler's impact on the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper industry and all of Southern California," said current Times Publisher Jeff Johnson (no relation to Tom Johnson). "He was bold in making changes and investments in the paper that transformed The Times into a world-class news organization."

During Chandler's 20 years as publisher -- and five subsequent years as editor in chief and chairman of the board of The Times' then-parent company, Times Mirror -- the paper won 10 Pulitzer Prizes and expanded from two to 34 foreign and domestic bureaus.

At the same time, it doubled its circulation to more than 1 million daily and for many years during and after his tenure published more news -- and more advertising -- than any other newspaper in the United States.

"Otis was a giant in every way," said Donald Graham, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of the Washington Post Co. "The paper you are reading is his monument. By his strength and by his judgment of good journalists, he was of unique importance in the history of the Los Angeles Times."

Chandler cared deeply about how The Times was regarded by East Coast opinion-makers, and more than 40 years after his father first took him to a national convention of newspaper publishers, he could still recall, with an edge in his voice, "how clear it was that The Times was regarded as a bad newspaper from a hick town."

That perception embarrassed Chandler, and when he took over as publisher a few years later, it became the driving force behind his commitment to remake The Times.

In 1999 -- almost 20 years after he left the publisher's office and with no official ties to the paper anymore -- its standing was still so important to him that he emerged from a largely self-imposed exile and issued a strong denunciation of top Times and Times Mirror executives.

He thought they had committed transgressions that jeopardized the reputation and credibility he had worked so diligently to establish.

Many at The Times hoped that in the aftermath of that re-emergence, Chandler would use his moral authority to help reverse what he -- and they -- saw as the declining fortunes of the paper.

But by then, he had so little real power and so little influence with the members of his family who controlled the paper that when they decided four months later to sell Times Mirror to Tribune Co. of Chicago, he said he hadn't even known about the negotiations until he heard "rumors, nothing more," two days before the deal was consummated.

He was also so disenchanted with the management of Times Mirror by then that he not only didn't fight or even criticize the sale but instead embraced it as "a very positive move ... a perfect fit ... a win-win situation."

Surprising though it may have been, that behavior -- the initial reluctance to question his successors, the cheerful acquiescence to the sale -- was very much in keeping with a lifelong pattern.

The Face of the Paper

Chandler changed The Times so dramatically and became so identified with the paper that when he left the publisher's office at age 52, and again when he relinquished his corporate titles five years later, employees at The Times and Chandler's peers throughout the industry were both stunned and puzzled.

"Everyone wondered why, at so young an age, he would step away from something that he had had such an enormous impact in building," Louis D. Boccardi, former president and chief executive officer of Associated Press, said more than a decade later.

Arthur O. Sulzberger, who was then publisher of the New York Times, said that although he initially shared his colleagues' "surprise and disappointment" when Chandler left, "I later realized that I shouldn't have been so surprised. As long as I knew him, Otis had an adventurous spirit and the courage to pursue it."

Chandler had always had an active life outside the newspaper business, and in his final years as publisher, close friends and associates knew that the lure of those interests -- combined with fatigue, restlessness, health problems and major changes in his personal life -- were inexorably leading him away from The Times.

But it was fitting that his departure was so surprising to so many, for he had long been something of an enigma to his fellow publishers. Big, blond and broad-shouldered, Chandler looked more like a Muscle Beach habitue-turned-movie star than a corporate entrepreneur on a journalistic mission.