Dwight Opperman never tried a legal case, but he breathed the law, friends and family say.

The former head of West Publishing Co., one of the world’s largest legal publishers, played a key role in developing Westlaw, a widely used online research tool familiar to nearly everyone in the legal profession.

“He was instrumental in leading West from a book publisher and moving into electronic publishing,” said Grant Nelson, former West executive. “Dwight had the vision that there was something else on the horizon. He really felt in his core that West Publishing was providing a vital service to the courts, to the legal system and to the country, and he took great pride in that.”

Opperman died Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., after a short illness. He was 89.

A well-known Twin Cities businessman, Opperman most recently served as chairman of Key Investment Inc., a private investment company in Minneapolis involved in publishing and run by his son Vance Opperman.

Among its holdings are MSP Communications, publisher of Mpls.St. Paul magazine and Twin Cities Business. The elder Opperman retired from that position about six months ago.

Born in Perry, Iowa, Dwight Opperman was a son of the Depression. Vance Opperman recalled his father describing his life as a boy, walking the rail lines searching for stray coal the family could use to heat the house.

As a young man, he played saxophone in bands, often with his wife as lead singer. But he had a love of language, and it was the law that ultimately drew his passion.

In 1951, he graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, with a law degree and moved his young family to the Twin Cities, where he took a job as an editor at West Publishing Co., then based in St. Paul.

He rose to the top at West, leading the publisher as it developed Westlaw, which was launched in the mid-1970s.

Vance Opperman recalled going with his father to the office on Saturdays, watching him flip through large law books and classifying cases.

“No one classified cases faster or more accurately than he did,” Vance Opperman recalled. “I’ve always carried that image of my dad.”

Vance Opperman went on to run West himself. The family made a fortune when West was sold in 1996 to Toronto-based Thomson Corp. for $3.4 billion. Now Thomson Reuters, the company maintains a major operation in Eagan, where it has about 7,000 employees.

Dwight Opperman went on to become an active philanthropist, establishing a number of scholarships at Drake and also endowing Drake’s Dwight D. Opperman Constitutional Law Lecture, an annual lecture delivered by top scholars, often U.S. Supreme Court justices.

He also held board positions at institutions such as the Drake University Law School, New York University School of Law, William & Mary School of Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Honored among judges

John Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States, issued a statement Thursday saying the court was “deeply saddened” to learn of Dwight Opperman’s death.

Roberts noted Opperman’s establishment of the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award in 1982 to recognize unsung heroes of the federal bench, as well as his efforts as trustee and board chairman of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

“Dwight has long been a committed friend and supporter not only of the Supreme Court but of the Federal Judiciary as a whole,” Roberts said. “He demonstrated his deep commitment to the American system of justice, and in particular the role of the judge in that system, in countless other ways as well.”

Nelson, his former colleague at West, described Dwight Opperman as a quick wit and a kind man who may have seen work as his hobby but also was extensively involved with his family. For decades, the men in the family gathered for an annual fishing trip on Rainy Lake near International Falls.

“We played cards and smoked cigars,” said Vance Opperman.

Dwight Opperman’s first wife, Jeanice, died of lung cancer in 1993. In 2008, he married writer Julie Chrystyn. He maintained a home in Dellwood, Minn., but began living in Beverly Hills full time last year.

In addition to his son Vance, he is survived by another son, Fane, of Palo Alto, Calif.; a sister, Doris Morris of Whittier, Calif., nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are in progress. A memorial gathering is being planned for the Twin Cities in August.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683