Dean Lesher was the quintessential suburban newspaper publisher. He believed passionately in the value of local news, the power of customized editions and the obligation to personally get involved in local and regional issues that mattered.
He followed these passions and rode the post-World War II economic boom in the West to create a powerful and rich publishing empire in San Francisco’s East Bay.
“He was certainly one of the greats of California journalism,” said Tom Goldstein, former dean of the school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “He left an imprint, not only on the notion of suburban journalism and what it should be. He had extraordinary impact on the growth of a county.”
At his funeral, then-Gov. Pete Wilson said: “knowing Dean Lesher was like reading a spellbinding novel. I’m sorry the last chapter has ended. What he has produced is a life few of us will lead.”
And a remarkable life it was.
Lesher delighted in describing himself as a simple country boy.
A country boy, maybe, but there was nothing simple about Dean Stanley Lesher. Before his death at age 90 on May 13, 1993, Lesher had transformed several free weekly shoppers into a powerful news group that continually fought off challenges by much larger newspapers.
Born Aug. 4, 1902, to Margaret and David Lesher in Williamsport, Md., Lesher grew up on the banks of the Potomic River, 75 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
Lesher’s father was a respected doctor. The younger Lesher spent hours with his father, riding in the horse-drawn carriage as the doctor made his rounds. It was not enough, his father taught him, to merely go through life doing what was expected. One must reach out to others and work to create a better community.
Lesher’s business career began at the age of 10, when he acquired an ice cream cart and set up outside the popular town tannery. Location, Lesher was learning, was everything.
When he turned 12, he gave up the cart and took a job tacking and stretching hides in the tannery shop. Years later, Lesher learned that his father was a major stockholder in the tannery, but he had chosen to let his son start at the bottom to learn what hard work was all about.
During his high school years, Lesher worked as a railroad waybill clerk, but he also managed to find time to play quarterback on the high school football team, second base on the baseball team and center forward on the soccer team, where he always demonstrated an aggressive and competitive spirit.
David and Margaret Lesher wanted their son to have the best education possible. They sent him to the University of Maryland, where he graduated magna cum laude in three years, and urged him to follow a career in law. He received his law degree from Harvard Law School.
Upon graduation, he turned down several offers to practice law in New York and instead headed west where he started a successful legal practice in Kansas City, Mo. It was here that he developed a life-long friendship with a man who later was to become president of the United States, Harry S. Truman.
But Lesher soon grew bored with law and took up an interest in newspapers. He was impressed with a paper’s ability not only to inform but also to change and enhance a community.
He acquired a small newspaper in Nebraska, but it was a dismal undertaking. The community he chose was declining, and he wasn’t able to make it profitable. So at the age of 39, in 1941, he moved his family to California and purchased a small daily newspaper in the San Joaquin Valley: the Merced Sun-Star.
Merced and the Central Valley were thriving at the time, supporting the Allied effort in World War II, but the thriving economy had its downside for the local newspaper. With most of the valley production headed out of the area, wartime civilian shortages meant empty shelves in stores and a resulting dearth of local advertising.
Lesher found himself facing another financial crisis, so he resorted to what he did best: personal persuasion. He took 40 of the most prominent and stubborn shop owners to dinner and asked them to advertise to save the community newspaper. Most of the merchants responded favorably. Disaster was averted, an outsider was taken into the community, and a one-of-a-kind California newspaper career was on its way.
In 1945, Lesher was credited with saving the pilot training school in Merced, flying to Washington to meet his old friend from Missouri, Harry Truman. “What are you doing here?” Truman asked Lesher. “I was about to ask you the same thing” was Lesher’s reply to the president.
Lesher began looking outside Merced for other publishing opportunities, and he soon found them in Contra Costa County in San Francisco’s East Bay region. He toyed with the idea of buying a small semi-weekly, the Walnut Creek Journal-Courier, but wasn’t convinced it was a smart move until he rented a small plane and flew over the area.
“It dawned on me that I should look for here is what makes great civilizations,” Lesher later recalled, factors such as continental edges, riverside locations and, in the case of Contra Costa, the juncture of great highways. From the air, he could envision homes in the place of orchards and rolling hills along the Interstate 680 and State Highway 24 corridors.
He purchased the Walnut Creek paper in 1947 and five years later changed its name to the Contra Costa Times to reflect its growing prominence in the county. He increased its days of publication and in 1962 converted the paper to “controlled circulation,” an aggressive and expensive new strategy that called for free delivery of a copy to every household while asking readers to voluntarily buy subscriptions.
He bought neighboring weeklies and two East Contra Costa County dailies, the Antioch Ledger and the Pittsburg Post-Dispatch, ultimately converting the weeklies into zoned daily editions called the West County Times, San Ramon Valley Times and Valley Times, and merging the two East Contra Costa dailies into a single edition, the Ledger-Dispatch. And slowly but surely he converted the dailies’ free circulation to paid. This approach became a widely imitated prototype for converting free weeklies into paid dailies.
By the time Lesher Communications was sold by Lesher’s heirs in 1995 for $365 million to the media giant Knight-Ridder Inc., that 2,000 circulation semi-weekly in Walnut Creek had evolved into an enterprise with dailies totaling nearly 200,000 circulation, a network of weeklies and annual revenues exceeding $100 million.
Lesher knew that his papers’ franchise relied on the quantity and quality of their local news and feature content, and he believed that as publisher he had a personal obligation to help shape and direct the communities covered by his publications.
Lesher was deeply involved in education. At various times he served on the Board of Governors of the California Community College system and as a trustee of St. Mary’s College, John F. Kennedy University and the California State University system. He also served on the California Post-Secondary Education Commission.
He was instrumental in bringing an auxiliary campus of California State University/Hayward to Contra Costa County. He donated to several colleges, including Cal State-Hayward, St. Mary’s College, John F. Kennedy University and the College of Holy Names. His contribution made possible the Dean and Kathryn Lesher Library at Merced Junior College, and he created a fund that financed scholarships for nearly 100 Contra Costa County and Merced County students each year.
He pushed for local programs that supported a vibrant economy, and he was regarded as one of the state’s leaders on water policy.
Lesher also provided financial assistance to renovate area hospitals and built the Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, a theater complex that posthumously took on his name.
“Dean was a man of contrasts,” George Riggs, Lesher Communications president, told attendees at Lesher’s funeral. “He possessed great intellect and loved talking with politicians and leaders, but he took equal pleasure just kibitzing with his employees over lunch ...
“He was a hard bargainer and tough negotiator in any type of business deal, yet freely gave away millions.”
His approach to business sometimes led some to underestimate the quality of his newspapers. The Contra Costa Times won the General Excellence Award in its circulation category from the California Newspaper Publishers Association in 1980, 1989, 1992 and for the year when he died, 1993.
Lesher gathered his share of personal accolades as well. In 1977, the California Press Association recognized him as Publisher of the Year for outstanding service to his community. The Community College Association named him Education Publisher of California in 1980, and county leaders gave him the title of “Mr. Contra Costa” in 1985.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan presented Lesher with the National Newspaper Association’s highest award, for distinguished leadership. The year before that, the Suburban Newspapers of America created a new award, Suburban Publisher of the Decade, which bears the Lesher name. Its first recipient was Dean Stanley Lesher. Lesher’s public light never waned, but he did suffer personal setbacks. His wife Kathryn died of cancer in 1971, and he lost a daughter.
Lesher’s health began to fail in 1991. He underwent heart bypass surgery but returned to work. In 1993 he suffered several setbacks and on May 13, 1993, he died at his home with his second wife Margaret at his side.
“My personal creed is: I hope the community is a better place in which to live because I passed through here.” —Dean Stanley Lesher, 1991
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*