David and Michael Copley were both adopted by the late Jim Copley, owner of Copley Press and publisher of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune. You probably know of David, now president of Copley Press, but it’s unlikely you have heard of Michael. Therein lies the story.
This story begins in 1951, with a brief liaison between Margaret Helen Kinney and John Hunt. She was a stenographer and he was a clerk at Borden dairy company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. When they learned she had become pregnant, the couple married to give the baby a name. Twenty days later, in a neighboring county, they divorced. The dissolution document reads, “Margaret Hunt does hereby waive and release any interest that she might or could have in any portion of the estate of John Hunt…in return, John Hunt will pay the plaintiff, Margaret Hunt, $1000.”
Margaret Helen Hunt, who went by her middle name, soon moved to San Diego with her widowed mother. They bought a small house on 54th Street, near University Avenue, and on January 31, 1952, at University Hospital, Helen gave birth to David Hunt.
Helen went to work as a secretary for the Union-Tribune Publishing Company, a part of the Copley newspaper chain. Eventually she became the secretary for the owner, Jim Copley. The affair that ensued between them remained a closely held company secret until their marriage in 1965. The wedding took place in August, the same month Jim’s marriage to his first wife, Jean, was dissolved.
Helen and her 13-year-old son moved into Foxhill, Jim’s 12-acre La Jolla estate, and Jim soon adopted David as his own son.
This was not his first adoption. He and Jean, in the third year of their marriage (1949), had adopted two children, Michael and Janice, who were of identical age but not related to each other. Family life was what might be called friendly-formal, with their father offering little demonstrable affection and imposing plenty of routine and discipline. At the age of ten, Michael was sent to his first boarding school, in Prescott, Arizona. A year later he was sent home because of bad grades and because he had organized commando raids on the kitchen. His father was not amused. In a 1978 newspaper interview, Michael said, “After that, he didn’t hug me anymore.”
He was sent away again, this time to Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts. When he returned home for summer and Christmas holidays, he rode his go-cart named “Honey Bee,” took trips to Borrego, hunted ducks with his dad, and enjoyed the life of a child of affluence.
But this abruptly came to an end when he was 15. “I never heard my parents fight or even argue,” Michael said in the 1978 interview. “I thought they were formal with each other, and it was easier to get affection or support from my mother. But when I came home from school my sister Janice was very upset. She told me they were getting a divorce. I can’t remember anything my mother or father said about it. They gave me some general explanation.…
"My father then married Helen. She was his former secretary, and she had her own son, David. From , when he married Helen, until 1970, I hardly ever saw my father. Even when he came East on business, he wouldn’t call me at school because she wouldn’t like that. She had her own son, and my father adopted him about two months after the wedding.… My father stopped sending me big Christmas presents because Helen wouldn’t like that either.
“I saw him maybe three or four times in those years.”
So Jim’s first family was moved out of Foxhill, and the second was making itself at home. David, too, was sent away to boarding school, and Helen hit the La Jolla social circuit. She also took a growing interest in the company, learning about its business operations over evening cocktails. It was a timely tutorial. Helen and a few intimates knew that Jim was dying of cancer.
The parties at Foxhill continued, though, with hundreds of guests appearing for catered dinners. One of the most famous dinners was held in August 1968. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, after their nomination, flew to San Diego to be entertained by Jim and Helen. For years the Copley papers had supported the California Republican, and as a consequence, Jim Copley was now enjoying the pinnacle of his political power.
But all the money and power in the world could not keep him alive. He finally succumbed to brain and lung cancer in 1973 at the age of 57. To his widow, to whom he had been married for eight years, he left control of his publishing empire and the bulk of his fortune.
Apparently, that was not enough. In 1974, Helen was sued by Michael and Janice, who charged her with looting the trust fund set up for them by their father and fraudulently scheming to consolidate her grip on the Copley Press. Michael charged that Helen plotted to prevent him from seeing his father as he lay dying at Scripps Clinic. He alleged that from the beginning of her marriage, she had taken advantage of his father’s illness to cut him off from Michael and his sister.
Not surprisingly, when Michael graduated from Stanford in 1977 with a degree in journalism, he was not hired by the Union or Evening Tribune. He was not even allowed on the premises.
The legal battle finally reached a conclusion in 1982, with Michael and Janice settling for lifetime annual cash payments from their trust fund. They would never be poor, but neither would they or their progeny ever have influence or ownership in the Copley newspaper chain. Helen had prevailed.
And her son would be the beneficiary. Soon after David graduated from Menlo College in Atherton, he was employed by his mother’s company — a business said to be worth about $750 million. After a stint as publisher of the small biweekly Borrego Sun, David became vice president of the Copley Press, then president in 1988, and president and CEO in 1997. This rapid rise up the employment ladder was to prepare him to take over from his mother. When she retired in 2001, after nearly three decades as chairman of the Copley Press and publisher of the Union, Evening Tribune, and Union-Tribune, she named her son to succeed her.