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Jerry Warren dies at 84; San Diego journalist and aide to Nixon, Ford

Obituary: Jerry Warren, former San Diego newspaper editor and aide to Presidents Nixon and Ford, dies at 84

Jerry Warren was the top editor of the San Diego Union, and Union-Tribune after a merger, for a combined 20 years.

But before that, it was he who faced journalists as the White House's deputy press secretary during the Richard Nixon presidency. Indeed, Warren often handled the highly contentious morning press conferences in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

"How can you describe that empty feeling in your stomach that keeps gnawing away at you?" he said of the press conferences in a 1974 Los Angeles Times interview.

Warren, 84, who was able to build a respected newspaper career after that time and later turned to studying spiritual matters, died Friday at a hospital in Arlington, Va.

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FOR THE RECORD
March 23, 12:07 p.m.: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly said Jerry Warren died Saturday. He died Friday.
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He had late-stage cancer, said his daughter, Mia Johnson, and died of pneumonia.

Warren was assistant managing editor at the Union in 1969 when he got an offer to become deputy press secretary. "It was a challenge that doesn't come along very often," he said in the Times interview. "Not too many people have an opportunity to work for a president."

Phemie Davis, who was married to Warren during his time in the White House, said that unlike many in the administration, Warren had friendships with reporters. "He was the only journalist in the group of top aides," Davis said in an interview Saturday. "He had a special relationship with the press that the rest of the administration didn't enjoy."

But Warren's relationships with the press came under strain as the Watergate scandal worsened. And Davis said Warren was devastated when he learned the truth of how much Nixon was personally involved in the scandal.

"When it turned out that so much he was told wasn't true," she said of her former husband, "it was very, very hard."

He was born Gerald Warren on Aug. 17, 1930, in Hastings, Neb. His father was a school superintendent and his mother was a teacher.

Warren graduated from Saint Edward High School in Saint Edward, Neb., and went on to the University of Nebraska, earning a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1952. He spent four years in the Navy and in 1956 enrolled in a Copley journalism training program in San Diego, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

After a stint as a reporter, Warren was made an editor. "He understood copy and best of all, he got along very well with reporters and people," said former editor Peter Kaye, quoted in the U-T on Saturday.

In 1975, after working at the White House through Nixon's 1974 resignation and into the Gerald Ford administration, Warren returned to San Diego at the invitation of the Union's owner, Helen Copley, to become editor.

The paper's circulation increased during his time at the helm, and he oversaw some controversial stories, including an expose of the Roman Catholic diocese.

There were stumbles too, including pressing reporters to get more information on a grand jury investigation into the city's mayor in 1984. When some of the information reported in the paper turned out to be inaccurate, he saw himself as "an accessory, if not the godfather of that mistake," he said in a 1995 U-T interview.

Warren retired in 1995. Moving to Virginia, he became more involved with the Episcopal church, enrolling at the Virginia Theological Seminary, where the vast majority of students were many decades younger.

"He lived in the dorm," Johnson said, by choice. "My father was able to develop close relationships with people of all ages and all walks of life. I'm sure he got along brilliantly."

In addition to Johnson, who lives in New York, Warren is survived by his son, Ben, who lives in El Centro; and two grandchildren. Both of Warren's marriages ended in divorce.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcolker

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATED

9:30 p.m.: This story has been updated with new details throughout.

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