LocalObituaries

Neil Morgan dies at 89; longtime San Diego journalist

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Neil Morgan, noted journalist, author and civic force in San Diego for more than six decades, has died. He was 89.

Morgan died Saturday at his home in La Jolla after a long illness, including respiratory distress, according to his wife, travel writer Judith Morgan.

With his column, first in the San Diego Daily Journal and later the San Diego Evening Tribune, Morgan chronicled the city's coming-of-age beginning after World War II. Among American cities, few were transformed by the war more than San Diego, Morgan often noted.

"In quite suddenly becoming a metropolitan area, San Diego has accepted the missile, the atom, the laboratory, the campus and even a casual California sophistication, which World War II visitors thought foreign to its nature," he wrote.

After serving as the newspaper's travel editor and associate editor, Morgan was named editor of the Tribune in 1981 and remained in that position until the newspaper merged with the other Copley family-owned newspaper, the San Diego Union, in 1992.

With Morgan at the helm, the Tribune was known as a "writer's paper," said longtime San Diego journalist and Morgan friend Bob Witty. He considered the mentoring of young reporters a primary duty of an editor; he loved both a news "scoop" and a well-written narrative.

Morgan maintained an "open-door" policy that invited reporters to drop in to discuss their latest story and maybe ask for some fine-tuning on their writing. His management style was informal, his suggestions tinged with a North Carolina accent.

With his wife, Morgan co-wrote a well-received biography of La Jolla resident Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. He also wrote books about San Diego and the Western U.S., among other topics.

He was an unabashed San Diego booster but not above pointing out the city's occasional silliness and scandal. He gently poked and prodded the city to move beyond its historic provincialism.

His columns, in the three-dot style that was then popular among newspapers, often contained bits of gossip and political news and humorous asides. Except on occasion — including when a judge convicted of a sex crime refused to resign — he was not a crusader, leaving that chore to the news and editorial pages.

Among other topics, Morgan campaigned for the city to forge closer ties to neighboring Tijuana. He exposed the grip that an organized crime figure had on San Diego. He was also awarded the Ernie Pyle award for human interest writing.

"Neil was a force for good in San Diego," said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. "He was an old-school journalist who believed in speaking truth to power."

On matters of politics, Morgan was a moderate in a city where the journalism establishment for decades was dominated by conservatives and business interests.

"He was a voice for people whose voices were not often heard in San Diego," Nelson said.

Neil Bowen Morgan was born Feb. 27, 1924, in Smithfield, N.C. His father was a Baptist minister who dabbled in journalism. Morgan graduated from Wake Forest College in 1943 and joined the Navy as an officer during World War II, which brought him to San Diego.

After being forced out of the merged Union-Tribune in 2004, Morgan helped investor Ralph B. Woolley Jr. found the Voice of San Diego website devoted to investigative journalism and commentary.

Woolley, in an interview in 2012 with U-T columnist Logan Jenkins, described the meeting with Morgan at a La Jolla watering hole that led to founding the website.

"I started the conversation by saying: 'San Diego cannot afford to lose your voice,'" Woolley said.

Morgan is survived his wife and a daughter, Jill. He asked that no memorials be held.

tony.perry@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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