Marion Sandler, the co-chief executive at Golden West Financial in Oakland, Calif., for more than four decades, has died at the age of 81.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on its website Monday that Sandler, who ran Golden West with her husband, Herb, died at her San Francisco home Friday. The family did not disclose the cause of death but said she he had been ill for some time.

The Sandlers bought Golden West's thrift subsidiary, World Savings Bank, in 1963 when it had just two branches in California and over the next 43 years built into a mortgage-lending powerhouse with nearly 300 offices in 10 states. Wachovia Corporation bought Golden West in 2006 for about $24 billion.

At the height of the thrift's prosperity the Sandler's routinely ranked among the industry's highest-paid CEOs and Fortune magazine named World Savings one of the most-admired mortgage-servicing firms in 2003, 2005 and 2006, according to news reports.

Revered for much of their careers, the Sandlers came under withering criticism during the financial crisis for World Savings' aggressive marketing of a type of adjustable-rate mortgage that let borrowers decide how much they wanted to pay each month. Many of those loans soured when the real estate market cratered and Wachovia wound up selling itself to Wells Fargo (WFC) in late 2008.

In retirement, the Sandlers devoted most of their time and attention to philanthropy. Marion Sandler was a founding director of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, in 2003 and together the Sandlers helped found the investigative journalism project ProPublica, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

In a statement, John Podesta, the founder and chairman of the Center for American Progress, said Sandler "was a pioneering woman in finance [and} a coach and conscience for progressive" causes.

"Talking to her about a new idea or program often felt like defending a doctoral dissertation, but she could also be incredibly warm, kind, and thoughtful," Podesta said. I never left a conversation with Marion without some of her wisdom and charm rubbing off on me."

Sandler is survived by her husband, their two children, Susan and Jim, two brothers and two grandchildren.

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