POWAY — William J. Brehm Sr., owner of the parent company of the Hi-Desert Star and Desert Trail and a benefactor to many projects in the Morongo Basin, died Sunday in his home in Poway after a long battle with cancer. He was 89 years old.
He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Mona; their children, Tina McDonald, of Poway, Bill Brehm Jr., of Poway, Barbara Schuyler, of Fallbrook, and Cindy Melland, of Yucca Valley; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his brothers Loyd Brehm and Del Miller and his sister Dianne Howard.
Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Nov. 1, 1925, the son of William and Lola Brehm. In World War II he served in the Navy Air Corps and was attending universities in Missouri, North Dakota and California. At war’s end he was planning to attend the University of Southern California to earn an engineering degree. However, he took a detour and went to work as a “printer’s devil” at the Bell-Maywood Industrial Post in Los Angeles in 1946. This is when his passion for newspapers began.
By 1950, he had become a publisher in the McGiffin Newspaper Company, taking on a corporate role. In 1960, he became president of the company, which had been owned by his father-in-law, Bill McGiffin, who died in 1955. The company was renamed Brehm Communications, Inc. in 1981.
In 1962, Brehm and his wife began buying newspapers, starting with the weekly Los Baños Enterprise and the Auburn Journal in 1965, adding to the 17 weekly and two daily suburban newspapers and printing company in the Los Angeles area, as well as the Fort Madison (Iowa) Daily Democrat, where the company began.
After selling the LA area newspapers, he bought and sold many additional newspapers. The company is now in seven states and has more than 50 publications, 40 websites and five printing facilities.
At the height of the company, which was founded in 1919, more than 700 employees worked for BCI. The BCI corporate office is located in Rancho Bernardo.
The Hi-Desert Star, which was founded in 1957, was purchased by Brehm in 1970. Two years later, the company purchased The Desert Trail, which was founded in 1935.
“As the publisher of our local papers, I would describe Bill Brehm as a community newspaper icon. His integrity, high standards and belief in community and local news were unsurpassed,” Cindy Melland, president of Hi-Desert Publishing Co., said.
“As his daughter, there are no words to express my gratitude and admiration. He taught us by example with his tireless work ethic, his endless devotion to family and community, and his unbelievable fighting spirit. My son described it best: ‘Grandpa was all-in.’ No matter the task — buying and running newspapers, philanthropic endeavors, taking care of his family or leisure time — Bill Brehm did it with passion and tenacity.”
Brehm remained active in the company the rest of his life, with the help of his wife and three of his children: Bill Brehm Jr., who serves as president of BCI; Cindy Melland, who is publisher at Hi-Desert Publishing Co. in Yucca Valley; and Barbara Schuyler, who oversees the real estate division of the company.
Brehm believed local newspapers were the heart and soul of a community and over his nearly 70 years in the business, his company was involved in ownership of more than 100 publications. Bill Sr., as he was known by his friends, was well respected for his passion for newspapers, fishing, golf, gardening and family.
His passion for fishing took him from California to Canada and remote places in Alaska. He would take family, friends and employees on these trips, always in search of the biggest fish.
Brehm also loved to work with youth, coaching numerous years of Little League and youth basketball. He spent many working and leisure hours in the Morongo Basin, attending community and sporting events over the years and even playing in the annual Pioneer Pass Golf Challenge.
Brehm believed strongly that the foundation of a community newspaper was strong local news and commitment to the community, which was the driving force behind his success. This commitment inspired Brehm and his wife to partner with the Basin Wide Foundation as major donors to design and build a 12-acre family park with soccer fields, baseball fields, a special needs ballpark and facilities. Brehm Park Family Recreation Center was gifted to the town of Yucca Valley this year. Most recently, he achieved a lifetime goal of developing and owning a golf course, Hawk’s Landing in Yucca Valley, which opened in March.
“His shoes are entirely too big to fill, so the rest of us will just have to follow the huge trail he blazed the best we can,” Melland said.
Over the years, Brehm was honored with numerous awards, including being recognized by his national peers in the Suburban Newspaper Association in 2011 with the Dean S. Lesher Lifetime Achievement Award.
Locally, Brehm and his newspapers were recognized by the chambers of commerce and other agencies, and he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Basin Wide Foundation.
He was one of the earliest supporters of several major projects that have transformed the lives of Morongo Basin residents, including Copper Mountain College, Hi-Desert Medical Center, the Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Desert, incorporation and the Morongo Basin Pipeline, to name a few.
Bill Brehm Jr., president of Brehm Communications, said, “BCI is over 95 years young and now, as the third and fourth generations are in the business, BCI continues to stress the importance of good community journalism and the support of local businesses, the cornerstone of each community we serve.
“With the support of my family members and all employees of BCI, this dedication will continue into the future as part of the legacy of my father, who headed the company for the past 60 years. I know my father is proud of the many employees who have worked for, and dedicated their lives to, the service of their communities through their community newspaper,” Brehm Jr. concluded.
A celebration of life will be held at Hawk’s Landing Golf Club in early November in honor of Brehm’s 90th birthday. The date and time will be announced later.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to:
• Miracle League of the Desert, 56711 Twentynine Palms Highway, Yucca Valley, CA 92284.
• Shakti Rising, 2404 F Street, San Diego, CA 92102.
The Miracle League of the Desert is designed to allow children and adults with special needs to move safely from base to base on an all-abilities baseball field in the Brehm Family Park in Yucca Valley.
Bill and Mona Brehm helped fund the startup of Shakti Rising, which was founded by Bill Sr.’s granddaughter, Shannon Thompson. It is a social change organization transforming the lives of young women.