San Diego Longtime cynics greeted last week's announcement that architect Hal Sadler has been chosen the next Mr. San Diego, to be awarded on August 23, with a hearty laugh. Sadler, a wealthy pillar of the local establishment, is just the latest in a long line of business types of colorful reputation to receive the honor, first given in 1951 to Joe Dryer, a ferocious booster who formed the Heaven on Earth Club to promote the massive growth and development that some now see as an environmental bane. In those days, the prize was handed out by the Grant Club, described in a 1947 San Diego Union story as "a coterie of men meeting every noonday in the Grant Hotel lobby."
"Hangers-on at club gatherings include local lobbyists anxious to find some fulcrum to move their projects through local legislative halls. They are tolerated but not accorded real membership. Political writers are encouraged to attend, but, like children, they should be seen and not heard." Local titans of the now-long-gone airplane industry, including Fred Rohr and Reuben H. Fleet, were among the early recipients of the annual award. Other winners of less towering repute included Union-Tribune publisher Jim Copley, famous for using his newspapers to advance the careers of his favorite pols, the best-known being Richard Nixon.
Most notorious among the honorees was C. Arnholt Smith, whom Copley once called "Mr. San Diego of the Century."
For years Smith, also a Nixon patron, was the city's most powerful banker and industrialist, possessor of his own airline and tuna-fishing fleet. His career came to an abrupt end with the insolvency of his United States National Bank as a result of imprudent loans to certain friends, including those having ties to the mob. Then there was John Alessio, who, legend has it, was discovered by Smith while he was shining his shoes. Smith made him a messenger at his Banco del Pacifico in Tijuana; four years later Alessio was running Tijuana's Agua Caliente racetrack. In 1970, six years after becoming Mr. San Diego, Alessio, who once owned the Hotel del Coronado and Mr. A's restaurant, was convicted of income tax invasion by laundering cash through a Mexican bank; he did a two-year stretch in federal prison. Now comes Sadler continuing the proud tradition. In December 2004, the onetime member of the city's Centre City Development Corporation board, agreed to pay a $6000 fine to settle a complaint by the city's Ethics Commission that he had repeatedly voted in favor of the downtown library project, for which his firm had the design contract. A year later, he retired from the board.