Former New York Times publisher and CEO Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, a driving force in the evolution of one of the most prestigious US media outlets, died Saturday. He was 86. During his tenure, Sulzberger oversaw the transformation of the Times from a tightly-controlled family operation -- his grandfather bought the daily in 1896 -- to the nucleus of a news powerhouse that now includes magazines, TV, radio stations and online operations. Sulzberger died at his home in Southampton, New York after a long illness, the Times reported, without specifying the cause of death. He served with the paper for 34 years, as publisher of the Times and chairman and chief executive officer of its parent company. Historians will likely remember him for his 1971 decision to publish a leaked secret US government history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. The documents, which detailed the government\'s pattern of deceit in describing the war to Congress and the US public, appeared in a series at the height of the unpopular war. A furious president Richard Nixon demanded that the Times halt the publication, citing damage to US national security. Nixon took the newspaper to court but lost on freedom of expression grounds in a landmark Supreme Court ruling. Sulzberger later said that he understood that he was risking heavy fines and possible jail time in publishing the documents. Known by his childhood nickname \"Punch,\" Sulzberger dropped out of high school. He joined the US Marines and saw action in the Pacific during World War II. Later recalled to service, he served as an officer in the Korean War. Sulzberger worked for the Times in Paris in his late 20s, then settled at the headquarters in New York. He was in line to become publisher after his father Arthur Hays Sulzberger retired and after his brother-in-law Orvil Dryfoos -- 13 years his senior -- took the job. Sulzberger seemed destined to become publisher well into his 50s -- but when his when his father suffered a stroke and Dryfoos died unexpectedly, he was ushered into the job in 1963 at age 37. In 1992, Sulzberger gave up the job of publisher to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Junior, and then had him take over as chairman of The New York Times Company in 1997. President Barack Obama said he and his wife Michelle were \"saddened\" by Sulzberger\'s death. Sulzberger \"was a firm believer in the importance of a free and independent press -- one that isn\'t afraid to seek the truth, hold those in power accountable, and tell the stories that need to be told,\" Obama said in a statement. \"Arthur\'s legacy lives on in the newspaper he loved and the journalists he inspired.\" Max Frankel, one of five executive editors during Sulzberger\'s tenure as chairman, said he had \"almost total\" confidence in the people he chose to trust. \"He did not want to edit the paper, plain and simple. He was there to adjudicate disputes and to set standards and values,\" Frankel told the Times. New York Mayor Michael Bloomber hailed Sulzberger as a \"luminary.\" The publisher\'s leadership and success in the face of challenges to the newspaper industry as readers migrate online allowed the Times to remain a \"cultural touchstone and a dynamic global enterprise for decades,\" Bloomberg added. The Times said that Sulzberger guided the newspaper \"through a long, sometimes turbulent period of expansion and change on a scale not seen since the newspaper\'s founding in 1851.\"