Dwight Opperman, key figure in Westlaw's launch in 1970s, dies at age 89

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Dwight Opperman, a Drake University law graduate who rose to the top job at West Publishing after starting work there as an editor and was a key figure in the company’s development of the Westlaw online legal research site in the 1970s, died Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 89 years old.

“He was instrumental in leading West from a book publisher and moving into electronic publishing,” former West executive Grant Nelson told the Star Tribune. “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’s son, Vance, who himself eventually ran the company, recalled going to the office with his father on Saturdays and watching him classify cases, apparently applying the publisher’s well-known key-number system.

“No one classified cases faster or more accurately than he did,” his son told the Star Tribune. “I’ve always carried that image of my dad.”

A child of the Depression, Opperman told his family that he had walked railway lines in Iowa as a child to collect pieces of coal that could be used to heat his home. Opperman rose to the post of president of West by 1968, and his work there contributed to his wealth. Opperman was a generous contributor to Drake University and other law-related causes.

The St. Paul, Minn.-based company was sold to Thomson Reuters in 1996 for $3.4 billion, the Pioneer Press reports.

“The thing that really made West rich and big was electronic data and retrieval,” said John Nasseff, another former West executive and friend of Opperman’s.

When the company’s board of directors was reluctant to continue developing Westlaw in the 1970s, “He fought for it, and he got that through,” Nasseff said of Opperman. “That was his baby. It made the company what it was when we sold it.”

U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts paid tribute to Opperman, too.

“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 in a written statement, adding the court is saddened by Opperman’s passing.

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