Mourners Recall an ‘Original’

Times Staff Writer

If anyone had walked into the memorial service for Otis Chandler on Monday with the idea that the former Times publisher was somehow one-dimensional, Big Willie Robinson was there to set them straight.

A 6-foot, 6-inch, 305-pound drag racer in camouflage clothing and a biker-style leather vest, Robinson leaped to his feet midway through the service at All Saints Church in Pasadena, strode up the center aisle and announced, quite unscripted: “Excuse me, everybody. It’s very important that I speak to you all, because Otis Chandler meant a lot to me.”

Chandler, it became clear to anyone scanning the audience of about 900 mourners, meant a lot to a strikingly diverse group of people. There were newspaper titans and delivery truck drivers, desk jockeys and grease monkeys, starched white shirts and black leather jackets.

“He was an original,” his son, Harry Chandler, said in a eulogy. “He broke the mold that his parents and the extended Chandler family and The Times had set for him.”

Chandler, 78, died Feb. 27 of Lewy body disease, a degenerative brain illness. In 20 years as Times publisher, from 1960 to 1980, he dramatically reshaped the paper that his family had owned for four generations, then left the job at age 52 to take corporate positions with the parent Times Mirror Co. He eventually left altogether, and was not consulted when the company was sold in 2000 to Tribune Co. of Chicago.


At Monday’s memorial, Chandler was remembered as a larger-than-life figure who strove to be the best at whatever he did, whether it was hunting big game, driving race cars, cycling, surfing, weightlifting, competing in the shot put -- or running a newspaper.

“The best,” said Tom Johnson, who took over as Times publisher when Chandler stepped down and later served as chief executive of CNN. “ ‘Let’s be the best’ was the goal that Otis conveyed to his family and those of us who worked for him throughout the years.”

As a newspaper publisher, Johnson said, Chandler “built the Los Angeles Times into what I think was one of the two best newspapers in the country.”

As a surfer, “Otis was still surfing in his 60s better than most

Racing? “Those of us who survived trips with Otis on the track and on the Pasadena Freeway will never forget his racing.”

And then there was big-game hunting. Chandler had complained during his life that his love of guns and hunting was increasingly making him a pariah, especially in California. Johnson recalled when a guest at Chandler’s home began crying at the sight of all the mounted animals, “especially the big, beautiful white polar bear.”

“Otis pulled me aside,” Johnson recalled, “and said, ‘Tom, tell her that bear was attacking me. Maybe that will help.’ ”

As mourners laughed, Johnson added: “It did not.”

Chandler’s love of nature, even when he was shooting it, was a constant theme throughout the service, as it was in his life. On Sunday, Harry Chandler said, about 30 family members attended a service at Oxnard’s Hollywood Beach that culminated in his four surviving children and six of his oldest grandchildren donning wetsuits, getting onto surfboards and paddling out past the breaking waves to convene in a circle and scatter his ashes. Chandler’s wife, Bettina, scattered more of his ashes near their home in Ojai, Johnson said.

At Monday’s service, the Rev. George Regas, the former rector of All Saints who officiated at Otis and Bettina Chandler’s wedding, said Chandler was not much of a churchgoer.

“Otis’ church was nature,” he said. “His cathedral was Planet Earth.”

For the most part, Monday’s memorial was a relatively formal and staid affair, more in keeping with Chandler’s boardroom persona than his parallel life as a surfer dude.

Lou Boccardi, retired president and general manager of the Associated Press, recalled that he once told Chandler that he should write his memoirs to ensure that his story, and that of The Times, were properly told. Chandler, he said, seemed to be horrified at the suggestion.

“Maybe,” Boccardi said, “he understood that not everybody had to leave a book. You could, as he did, leave a newspaper, and it would speak volumes about a life.”

Boccardi was among the dignitaries from the newspaper world who attended the service. Others included Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr., the retired publisher of the New York Times; William Dean Singleton, the head of MediaNews Group, which owns the Long Beach Press Telegram and Los Angeles Daily News, among other papers; Dennis FitzSimons, chief executive of Tribune Co.; and Paul Steiger, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.

There were, in addition, nearly all the living editors and publishers of The Times, past and present. They included current editor Dean Baquet and predecessors John Carroll, Michael Parks, Shelby Coffey and William F. Thomas, and publisher Jeff Johnson and predecessors Richard Schlosberg III, David Laventhol and Tom Johnson. Among dozens of former Times staff members were cartoonist Paul Conrad, retired Washington bureau chief Jack Nelson and retired City Editor Bill Boyarsky.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was among a small contingent of political leaders that included Los Angeles County supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky, and Los Angeles City Council members Eric Garcetti, Tom LaBonge and Dennis Zine.

“Otis Chandler and the Chandler family loved this city,” Villaraigosa said after the service. “They grew up with this city from the early beginnings. There is an organic link that they formed with this city that I think made his contributions even more profound.... Obviously, we miss that as a city.”

A good chunk of Chandler’s life was devoted to the internal combustion engine, whether as a race car driver, motorcycle rider or collector of all manner of fast vehicles. That passion was well-represented in the audience, which included racing champion Dan Gurney, Porsche mechanic Steven Ring and Chandler’s longtime friend and racing partner, John “J.T.” Thomas, who came from his home in North Carolina, despite having recently broken five ribs, separated his shoulder and shattered his wrist in a motorcycle accident.

Referring to Chandler by his nickname, Thomas said of the injuries: “Oats would be proud.”

Perhaps the biggest presence at the service, in more ways than one, was Robinson, president of the National & International Brotherhood of Street Racers, an organization dedicated to using drag racing as a tool to reduce racial tension and street crime. He said Chandler was instrumental in helping him found the organization in 1966, and frequently attended its drag races over the years. Chandler, Robinson said, gave him the nickname “Big Willie,” and he called the publisher “Big O.”

He startled the congregation with his impromptu eulogy, delivered in a booming voice. As church officials hovered nervously, Harry Chandler indicated that they should allow Robinson to continue speaking. After the service, he approached Robinson and thanked him.

Robinson credited Chandler with interceding with then-Mayor Richard Riordan after the 1992 riots to allow a drag-racing program at Terminal Island, where young people could race instead of fight.

“We still need him today,” he said, “but he’s gone home.... Right now, I guarantee you, he’s racing in heaven.”

The most moving remarks were those from Harry and Bettina Chandler. Harry described how, in the minutes after his father’s death, just before dawn, he took a ruminative stroll around the property surrounding the elder Chandler’s Ojai home. After a couple of minutes, he said, he turned to see a flock of large birds circling over his father’s bedroom. Otis Chandler had always compared himself to the eagle that is The Times’ symbol, saying that he wanted to soar.

Harry said he watched the birds “rising up, gliding around and around, higher and higher,” as if lifting his father’s soul heavenward.

“ ‘Goodbye,’ I breathed, unable to speak. ‘I will miss you always.’ ”

Bettina Chandler brought tears to many in the church when she told a story about Chandler that included a reference to his firstborn son, Norman, who died of a brain tumor in 2002. Otis, she said, woke up recently, when disease was claiming his reasoning powers, and announced to her: “I have to pack.”

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Chandler replied, “but Norman’s coming for me.”