Newspaper giant Alvah Chapman dies at 87

Alvah H. Chapman Jr. in 1998.
Alvah H. Chapman Jr. in 1998. Miami Herald

MIAMI — Alvah H. Chapman Jr., third-generation newspaperman and former Miami Herald president/CEO — one of South Florida's most influential corporate and civic leaders, whose business acumen and quiet passion helped mold not just the Herald, but modern Miami — has died at 87.

Chapman spent a traditional family Christmas Eve at his Coconut Grove home, reading the Bible with his wife, Betty, their two daughters and several grandchildren, then succumbed to pneumonia on Christmas Day.

He was afflicted with Parkinson's disease, suffered strokes in recent years and broke a hip in March.

Georgia-born and Citadel-educated, Chapman brought his family to Miami in 1960. He evolved into a devoted and energetic champion of his adopted hometown and became the unifying force behind scores of civic endeavors — from housing the homeless to sculpting downtown Miami's contemporary appearance to leading We Will Rebuild after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Long before his death, Chapman had become a civic legend exceeded perhaps only by pioneer Henry Flagler, another corporate titan whose leadership surpassed that of any elected official. Taciturn and courtly in public, Chapman viewed this brand of leadership as a responsibility — and as smart business.

"You can't publish a successful newspaper in a community that's dying on the vine," he once said. "If you want a successful company that's involved in the community, and a newspaper certainly is that, then you have to contribute to that community's success, too."

Chapman was the person presidents and paupers turned to when something needed to be done in South Florida.

Modesto "Mitch" Maidique, president of Florida International University, cited a doctoral thesis on power and reputation in South Florida that found, "no matter which way you cut it, Alvah was the most powerful and respected man in Miami."

In 2001, the university named its graduate business school in his honor.

"Alvah was an incredible role model throughout his life, and that never diminished," said David Landsberg, president and publisher of The Miami Herald Media Co. "What most impressed me is that right to the end, he didn't let down ... aggressively seeking support for the most important causes, and always giving valuable personal advice."

Guided by deeply-held religious beliefs and a code of moral rectitude rooted in his Citadel education, he seldom turned aside challenges to improve Miami. In response, his summons to others seldom went unanswered.

Chapman's son-in-law, Bob Hilton of St. Petersburg, said that when "Alvah recruited you for something, your choice was 'yes' or 'yes.'"

This extended to his family life, which for decades included summer fishing trips to the Bahamas on what daughter Dale Webb of Miami calls "serious fishing boats."

Of course, she said, "it was extremely organized. We all got three-ring binders with our orders. The grandchildren were allowed to go when they were 5 and could swim, and even they had duties. ... We had to attend knot-tying classes."

Chapman's influence was certified soon after Hurricane Andrew, when he answered a phone call from President George H.W. Bush, who urged Chapman to assemble a citizens' task force that would help direct recovery efforts.

Already retired — although engrossed in crusades against drugs, crime and homelessness — Chapman reluctantly agreed.

"I thought it would be good if somebody else led the effort," he confided in a rare interview. "This town shouldn't be dependent on someone who is retired."

He insisted on learning firsthand how the storm had disrupted lives. One day, driving through a predominantly black area, he saw an elderly woman on the porch of her wrecked home.

Chapman introduced himself to Dollie Buxton. Soon a small crowd of Buxton's neighbors came to share their Andrew horror stories.

This ramrod straight, vastly wealthy, unmistakably Southern gentleman listened intently. Finally he asked: "What are you going to do?"

"We're going to rebuild," Buxton said.

"Maybe we can help," Chapman replied.

From that conversation came Chapman's name for the task force: We Will Rebuild.

Still, there were limits to even his influence.

After retiring as Knight Ridder's chairman in 1989, he remained on the board of directors and objected loudly when Chairman P. Anthony Ridder announced in 1998 that he was moving the company's headquarters from Miami to San Jose, Calif.

Chapman said it was just plain wrong — Knight Ridder belonged in South Florida.

"Miami has been a great corporate home for Knight Ridder for more than 30 years," Chapman said at the time. "The symbolism is unfortunate."

He sought legal advice, but was told he had no case.

Chapman was guided by principles that seemed unwavering. Soon after retiring, he spoke at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and was asked for the secret of his success.

"The Citadel, my wife, Betty, and my faith in God," he said.

Friends and relatives knew how strongly his faith guided Chapman. In early 1992, Chapman said a new reading of Scripture persuaded him to help the homeless. He became the leader of the Community Partnership for Homeless, which has become a national model.

Chapman, an avid golfer, also labored mightily behind the scenes against bigotry. He sponsored the first black and first Jewish members of the Indian Creek Country Club, an effort that not all members applauded.

The list of Chapman's civic accomplishments seems almost superhuman: President of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce — establishing the New World Action Center Committee that helped revitalize downtown Miami.

President of Goodwill Industries of South Florida. Chairman of the 1972 campaign of the United Fund of Dade County, now the United Way.

The Orange Bowl Committee, Miami Citizens Against Crime, the Miami Coalition for a Drug-Free Partnership, and a 1982 campaign to raise $7 million for Liberty City revitalization after devastating riots — he headed them all.

He served on the committee to build the Miami Performing Arts Center, the Board of Trustees of Florida International University Foundation and the New World Symphony.

Yet, he always soft-pedaled his civic accomplishments.

Said Alberto Ibarguen, former Herald publisher, now Knight Foundation president: "What always struck me was the way he didn't need to take credit for anything. ... His view was 'Why should people give money to praise my name? We want them focused on the ideas.'"

Interestingly for a communications mogul, he wielded much of his influence in secret. In 1971, Chapman assembled South Florida's dozen most powerful business and educational leaders. He called it "the Non-Group," and enlisted its members in civic causes.

Although its influence was felt in myriad ways, it took 14 years before news of the group reached the media. Although that news appeared in The Miami Herald, Chapman was so protective of its privacy that he refused reporters access to a monthly meeting.

It wasn't the only time his interests clashed with The Herald's duties, but he rarely imposed editorial dictates.

"We don't always see things the same, but that has never created any problem for me," he once said. "It's not our (corporate) role to mastermind the local policy of a newspaper."

Former Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr. said Chapman "cared deeply about good journalism, but insisted that it couldn't be good journalism if it wasn't fair. ... Sometimes what we wrote made his civic-leadership life a bit more complicated, but he always chose the side of fact-finding and truth-telling."

Chapman came to Miami as company patriarch James L. Knight's executive assistant, quickly moving up the ranks to become The Herald's general manager and president. From 1976-1989, he was CEO and chairman of Knight Ridder, its now-defunct corporate parent.

He was "extremely distressed" by Knight Ridder's demise in 2006, Ibarguen said, but maintained until the end his belief that newspapers are vital to strong communities and to democracy in general.

Yet even as he ran the media giant ranked second only to Gannett Co. in daily circulation, Chapman seemed to crave a leadership role in the development of his new community.

It was a talent he had demonstrated from youth, when this son and grandson of newspapermen chose to attend The Citadel, the South Carolina military college known for a rigid code of Southern honor.

At 20, he became regimental commander, the college's top cadet, and only three years later, a squadron commander in charge of 2,000 troops and 25 B-17 bombers, leading 37 bombing runs during World War II.

On one mission, two of his four engines caught fire at 26,000 feet and he ordered the plane into a fake death spiral, only to pull up at 1,500 feet, shoot down a German fighter and sputter home.

While at The Citadel, he met Betty Bateman on a blind date. They married in 1943 in her hometown of Macon, Ga.

At 31, while an executive at his family's Columbus (Ga.) Ledger and Enquirer, he became the city's first United Givers president to meet a fundraising target.

Chapman became general manager of the St. Petersburg Times under legendary publisher Nelson Poynter, and moved on to become publisher of the Savannah Morning News and Evening Press.

As James L. Knight's executive assistant in Miami, he planned and organized his way to a long list of titles and accomplishments: The merger of Knight Newspapers and Ridder Publications in 1974, at the time the biggest transaction of its kind in newspaper history; the 12-year reign as CEO during which corporate revenues tripled while the newspapers won 33 Pulitzer Prizes; securing approval of a joint operating agreement between the competing Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.

Despite his impeccable manners and reputation for honesty, Chapman engendered controversy — occasionally in the columns of Knight Ridder newspapers.

He unsuccessfully backed a scheme to build an amusement park on Watson Island in Biscayne Bay. The Miami Herald opposed the project editorially. And he contributed his own and company money to three successful statewide fights against casino gambling.

Those activities raised concerns in the newsroom that he had compromised the paper's objectivity. He shrugged off the criticism, insisting he had a greater duty to protect the community from what he believed was a corrupting influence.

Nobody questioned Chapman's motives, however, certain that he was guided by an unusually strong conscience. In an interview with Charles Whited, the late Miami Herald columnist, Chapman said he heeded the biblical parable that talents are wasted unless multiplied.

"Much is given and much expected," he said. "I have been given a lot by this community. It's been good to me, and I've felt obligated to respond."

In addition to his wife and daughter Dale, Chapman is survived by daughter Chris Hilton, sister Wyline Sayler of St. Petersburg, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be 2:30 p.m. Monday at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables, preceded by a private burial. The family suggests contributions in his memory to Community Partnership for Homeless.

Former Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler contributed to this report.