Last week's surprise departure of Neil Morgan from the Union-Tribune after 54 years as a Copley scribe was shrouded in about as much confusion and contradiction as many of the columns he authored. A six-page statement written in the third person was handed around Morgan's lawyer's office during a late-afternoon news conference on Wednesday, March 31. It portrayed the columnist as a journalistic gigolo, cast off after decades of service to a mistress whom he had helped raise from poverty to the pinnacle of the city's most powerful institution.
"The man many consider San Diego's most trusted voice was treated like a miscreant," the statement said. "On Friday afternoon, February 6th, he was handed a letter by editor Karin Winner. It read: 'Your job as associate editor and senior columnist will be eliminated and your employment will end effective March 31.' Neil shook his head and looked at Winner. 'It's time to cut the chain,' she said. He reviewed the 'Release of Claims' which accompanied the letter. It gushed legalese. Sign it, the letter said, and he would get one year's pay. Refuse, and he would get two weeks."
Then followed a review of Morgan's life from birth 80 years ago in Smithfield, North Carolina, through his early years as a columnist for the Daily Journal and the San Diego Evening Tribune.
"During the '50s, Neil spent time with other reporters at a coffee shop at the corner of Second and Broadway, right around the corner from the Union-Tribune [building]. There, he met and often had coffee with a tall, striking brunette named Helen Hunt. She was a ticket clerk at the Santa Fe depot.
"Over time, Neil learned Helen's story. She was brought to San Diego from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by her mother in 1951 because she was pregnant. She stayed at a small house on 54th Street near University Avenue. Her son, David, was born at Mercy Hospital on Jan. 31, 1952."
Those details about the early years of Union-Tribune owner Helen Copley have been recounted elsewhere, but never by anyone with the Copley organization, let alone Morgan, who professed to be a Copley guardian and protector. According to the statement, when Helen said she wanted to work at the paper, Morgan told her "I'll see what I can do." Later, according to the statement, "he introduced her around the personnel office. She was hired as a secretary. One day, Neil helped arrange an introduction to Jim Copley. Later, she became Jim Copley's private secretary.
"Neil has been a close friend and confidant to three generations of Copleys. He helped Jim Copley through a messy divorce. He attended black tie functions with him and introduced him to the movers and shakers of journalism.... In August of 1965 the long-legged, vivacious ticket clerk became Mrs. Helen Copley. The child she had carried in her womb from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and gave birth to in San Diego in 1952 took his stepfather's surname. Henceforth, he was David Copley."
When Helen Copley took over as Union-Tribune publisher after the death of Jim in 1973, the statement added, "Neil helped Helen through an extremely difficult time arising out of her relationship to Dick Silberman, with whom she fell in love." Then, "when the Tribune and the San Diego Union merged in 1992, Helen met with Neil, told him she wanted to keep him forever, and asked him what he wanted to do. Neil said he'd like to write a column that was a mixture of reporting and opinion about San Diego. Helen enthusiastically agreed.
"In a letter to him dated October 29, 1991, she wrote: 'I especially like your description being "Mostly Morgan," an affectionate, smiling, gossipy, entertaining but sometimes chiding uncle talking to his town.'... It is this job, created by Helen Copley for Neil Morgan on October 29, 1991, that Neil was told on February 6th, 2004, had been 'eliminated.' No reason was given." Nor did the statement offer theories why Helen Copley would cut herself off from such a friend.
On Thursday morning (April 1) Morgan's departure was covered in a Union-Tribune story quoting U-T editor Karin Winner as saying she "wanted to set the record straight," but had been "asked not to talk about it at this time." The story did not reveal who had asked her to keep quiet or when she would be able to provide more details. It added that Morgan "said he could not pinpoint a reason for his dismissal."
But that account was at variance with an Associated Press dispatch, distributed Wednesday night under the byline of San Diego-based AP correspondent Seth Hettena. The AP reported that Morgan said "he believes he was forced out for angering a senior newspaper executive who shared information with him about 'a prominent San Diegan.' Morgan said the executive accused him of lying to other managers about their conversation."
The executive in question was not identified. Hettena quoted the ousted columnist, "I just think what's happening right now to the newspaper is dangerous." According to the AP, "Morgan said he was offered his old job back but refused." It quoted Morgan: "The well was poisoned. You look forward to nothing but harassment if the real boss wants to get rid of you."
And who is the "real boss" at the Union-Tribune these days?
According to a transcript of a recording of Wednesday's press conference, Morgan offered this theory: "I think my getting fired dated back to December, when Chuck Patrick, the corporate officer who is the main man now in operations, ah, in answer to a question I asked, told me personal information about a -- what do we say -- a prominent San Diegan, and I relayed that to three senior editors at the Union-Tribune because I thought they needed to know.
"And Chuck Patrick got very angry with me, called me a liar, thought I'd told more people than that, wanted to make sure it didn't get in 'the Reader,' all that good stuff.
"So we had some hard visits there for awhile, and I thought that had gone away, but I...then I found Karin Winner and an H-R (Human Resources) lady walked in very solemnly one afternoon and said, 'We're giving you 30 days' notice.' And I said, 'What's this about?' And Karin said, "It's time to cut the chain." And I said, "OK, what's 'the chain'?
"I didn't know whether she was talking about the Copley chain or my tenure, or what.
"She said, 'It's time to cut the chain.' That's all I was ever told about why I was fired."
Charles Patrick is chief operating officer of Copley Press and serves on its board of directors. Numerous sources within the U-T newsroom say that Patrick, a former certified public accountant, has assumed new prominence at the San Diego paper. "It would be hard for me to know which of the things I write have irritated the most people, or even in this particular case, Chuck Patrick," said Morgan, according to the transcript. "We have somewhat different outlooks on life."
Several U-T sources say that Patrick's apparent change of status has coincided with reports that Helen Copley's son and heir-apparent, David Copley, suffered a heart attack in mid-January and has undergone at least one major surgical procedure at a local hospital. Helen Copley is said to be in ill health, and neither she nor her son, who holds the title of U-T publisher, have been seen around the newspaper offices of late, though some highly-placed editorial employees are telling their colleagues that David's condition has been improving.
Those editorial sources claim that the Union-Tribune "will never be sold" even if both of the Copleys should die but instead would be donated to a nonprofit institution for operation in perpetuity. They point to the model of the St. Petersburg Times, owned by the Poynter Foundation, which in 1978 was willed a controlling interest in the paper by Nelson Poynter, its late owner and publisher. Poynter announced his plans to bequeath his stock to the foundation more than a year before his death. The Copleys have given no public indication of their own succession plans.
Contacted this week by phone at Copley's La Jolla headquarters, Charles Patrick's secretary said he was on vacation and unavailable for comment. She referred questions to Harold Fuson, another Copley executive, who did not respond to messages left with his secretary.
After word of David Copley's heart condition found its way to one non-U-T reporter, according to U-T sources, Copley executives were not amused. Thus, U-T sources say that on Thursday, the day after Morgan's departure, a statement purportedly issued by the ex-columnist was posted on at least one of the newsroom employee bulletin boards. It reportedly was later removed.
"One speculation has come back to me that I was fired because I leaked information to the Reader," the statement said. "Please join me in putting down that yarn. I have never in those 54 years leaked information about the Copleys or any other person or part of this newspaper to the Reader or to any other competitor. As a newsman, I am not of that generous a temperament.
"I have never leaked or passed information of any kind about David Copley or Helen Copley to anyone anywhere who was not in a senior management position within the Copley organization and who did not have, in my view, a corporate need to know."