PHOTO CHIEF: Bob Ponce was an Eastside Santa Barbara kid who loved photography, Montana, USC football, flashy cars, morning coffee at Vices & Spices, and Miss Kitty the cat, not necessarily in that order.
Joining the News-Press staff in the 1960s as a part-timer, Bob worked his way up to chief photographer, sleeping with a scanner at his bedside, ready to leap up to cover a fire, flood, earthquake, oil spill, or highway crash, braving wind, rain, cold, and flames. He photographed generations of Fiesta families over the decades and took special delight in the annual fashion edition.
Even after Bob retired in 1996, he closely monitored the scanner, keeping friends alerted to snarled highways and threatening fires. He died at home at 68 on June 24, the scanner at his side.
Perhaps the riskiest part of the job was working in the tiny News-Press darkroom that reeked with a vile mixture of toxic fumes emanating from pans of developer fluid.
A newspaper photographer holds what I consider the most physically demanding job in the newsroom. You’ve got to know what the camera or cameras slung around your neck can or can’t do, rush to the scene, take a perfect photo under the most difficult conditions, and get it back to the paper, often under demanding deadline pressures. It’s not for Sunday snapshot hobbyists.
Once back from the frontlines you need to feed eyewitness observations to the editors and reporting staff in the newsroom. Your cameras get battered, and your car’s likely to be bearing scratches, dents, smoke damage, or ripped tires. Reporters get the bylines and the glory; you’re lucky to get a small credit under your photo.
But I never heard Bob complain during my years at the News-Press. He was too busy working. In his time, he was well-known to, and liked by, police, firefighters, and the CHP. He was a consummate, hardworking professional, and a soft-spoken man. His job was his life, but he also harbored off-duty passions.
No USC graduate was a more ardent fan of Trojan football. He covered their games for years and normally sported a USC cap and T-shirt. “He lived and breathed USC,” a friend recalled. In reality, he’d attended Santa Barbara City College.
There were also his guns, casinos, and gambling: his Wild West side. When he had the chance, he’d climb in his latest car, perhaps his beloved 280Z Datsun, and hit the road to Las Vegas or Laughlin. “Bob always had the best car in the News-Press lot,” often a muscle car, a friend recalled. He also owned a cherished assault-weapon collection. Over the years, Bob courageously fought a series of illnesses and underwent countless operations.
I recall that when he went in for his draft physical, a local doctor, a well-known World War II veteran, examined Bob and handed him a sealed envelope to give to the draft board in L.A. When officials opened it, they found that the doctor had ignored his many physical ailments that should have disqualified him for military service. The note, as I recall, said something to the effect of, “Put this draft dodger in uniform.” Bob went for an honest exam and was declared exempt.
Bob loved the wide open spaces of the American West, especially Yosemite, Yellowstone National Park, and Monument Valley, along with Bodie ghost town. He accumulated a large collection of T-shirts depicting scenes of nature and Native American culture. He never missed an Indian powwow. Bob was popular in the newsroom, skiing with pals at Lake Tahoe and playing on the News-Press softball team.
During his retirement years, he could be found at the head of the back table at Vices, always ready to start the conversational ball rolling with some crack, usually aimed at Democrats. Even after a recent serious operation, he’d climb onto his power scooter and trundle over from his apartment, which he shared with Miss Kitty. (She’d replaced Killer, his longtime black cat. Killer’s death was a blow, and it took years before Miss Kitty arrived to win his affections.) Although not a drinker, he’d volunteer to be the designated driver for pals going wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Sue and I heard of his death as we started on a recent trip to Colorado, Utah, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. These were lands he loved, and he never understood why we ever went anywhere else. “Why would you go to Paris when you can see Canada?” His death saddened our trip, and we talked about how much he would have loved to see this red-rock monolith, that old mining town, or Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a vast gash in the earth with a river gliding 2,000 feet from the rim.
Since Bob’s death, we catch ourselves looking over at the end of the table at Vices, expecting to see him rolling up wearing his USC cap and T-shirt.
Bob Ponce’s life will be celebrated in the Outside Garden of the Veterans Memorial Building (112 W. Cabrillo Blvd.) on July 18 at 11 a.m.