I first met Bob Ponce just before dawn on Jan. 19, 1987. Reporting to the copy desk for my first day at the old Santa Barbara News-Press, my boss, Don Schneider, briskly introduced me to my new colleagues and then passed me off to one of them for training on the computer system.
Coming from the Houston Post — at the time one of the nation’s largest newspapers and boasting a sleek modern office building and a spacious, state-of-the-art newsroom — walking into 715 Anacapa St. was a step back in time. We had just a few months left as an afternoon newspaper, a schedule that meant copy editors arrived at what seemed like the middle of the night to begin assembling the day’s issue. Save for the lights over the copy desk, the newsroom was pitch black.
From my desk, I looked beyond Schneider and into what I assumed was some kind of a narrow storage hallway. Equipment and paper were piled precariously next to jugs of chemicals, and the entrance was sandwiched between an array of jury-rigged contraptions, blinking colored lights and pneumatic tubes. What had I gotten myself into, I thought.
Amid the clicking and clacking of keyboards, in strolled Ponce, looking like a bush pilot in his bomber jacket and hiking boots. He introduced himself as the photo editor, welcomed me to the team, then went over to the hallway and turned on the light. It was worse than I thought. What I had pegged as a storage closet actually was the Santa Barbara News-Press photo lab and darkroom.
Bob Ponce — who died June 24 at age 68 — lived his life playing the hand he was dealt. Whether it was a photo operation so primitive that it made a cave look like an improvement or health issues that left him wracked with pain and cost him a leg, he always made the best of his circumstances. That was the Ponce I knew well, and his example truly was inspiring to me.
The Ponce I knew as an artist was a gifted photographer. His precision with a camera was amazing, especially in the film era. With an efficiency bordering on unbelievable, Ponce could anticipate and frame a shot, then pull the trigger at the exact moment of action. To this day I marvel at the economy in his work. I’ve known other photographers who would return with rolls of film, with not a usable picture among them. Digital photography has further eroded such skills.
Ponce could shoot anything but he excelled in three areas: sports, President Ronald Reagan and fire.
As an award-winning sports photographer, his portfolio was worthy of Sports Illustrated. One of my prized possessions is a picture he gave me of UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, under center and barking orders against Ponce’s favorite football team, Figueroa Tech.
With Reagan, Ponce was often a witness to history and his pictures were relayed around the world by the Associated Press. Ponce was up at Rancho del Cielo when Reagan signed into law the landmark Kemp-Roth tax cuts in 1981. He was on hand again when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth visited Santa Barbara and gamely trekked up to the ranch in a torrential downpour, fording flooded creeks in a four-wheel-drive.
With fire, though, Ponce was without peer. He had a knack for being in the right place at the right time — so much so that he might have been considered an arson suspect except that he nearly always was sitting at his desk when the call came across the police scanner. He would simply exploit his knowledge of the streets of Santa Barbara to beat firefighters to the scene.
“Bob was a classic old-school photographer who lived for the big story,” said Tom Bolton, executive editor of the Santa Maria Times and our old boss in Santa Barbara. “He was at his best when major news was breaking out — floods, wildfires, shootings. He was wired in with the cops and the fire guys — they all knew him on a first-name basis — and he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
“His images of the big blazes — especially the 1990 Painted Cave Fire — were some of the best that were ever shot.”
Even in retirement, Ponce was drawn to flames. Michael Edwards, one of his closest friends and a neighbor and Vices & Spices crony, recalled when their apartment complex was ordered evacuated during the Jesusita Fire. Naturally, they stayed put. But Ponce kept demanding that Edwards roll him outside in his wheelchair so he could watch the conflagration for a few minutes at a time. Edwards said Ponce was judging wind speed, smoke and direction, mentally calculating — correctly — how and where the fire would go next. The last time we spoke a few weeks ago, in fact, Ponce was calling me with a tip about the Santa Barbara Fire Department.
It wasn’t all work and no play. Ponce was quite fond of the West and never needed an excuse to visit his beloved Sierra Nevada. What he did for recreation was a matter of dispute. To hear our friend and former colleague, Paul Yarbrough, tell it, Ponce wasn’t much of an outdoorsman.
“Despite spending a small fortune on fishing gear and all of the latest trappings of the sport, I never saw him EVER catch a fish,” Yarby told me. “Not once.
“He’d be on the banks of a lake in the eastern Sierra, with people on either side of him using the same bait, casting to the same spot. They’d have their limits and then some and Bob would have nothing.”
Gambling was a different story.
“As snakebit as he was in fishing, he was as successful playing dollar slot machines,” Yarbrough said. “You’d be in a casino in Lake Tahoe or Reno with him, and you’d hear bells going off in the slot area. Sure enough, it was Bob hitting another $250 or $500 jackpot. He couldn’t walk into a casino without hitting on the dollar slots.”
A member of San Marcos High School’s first graduating class, Ponce began working at the News-Press when he was a teenager. We didn’t know it at the time but, in retrospect, his 1996 retirement may have signaled the beginning of the end for the local newspaper. Four years later, The New York Times sold what we jokingly called “the oddest daily newspaper in Southern California.” The deal hastened the departure of a generation of institutional memory that can never be replaced.
In somewhat of a cruel irony, Ponce finally got a spacious, state-of-the-art darkroom as part of the News-Press building’s seismic retrofitting and the modernization of the newsroom. The year was 1989 — just as the age of digital photography began emerging to make darkrooms obsolete.
Ponce enjoyed it while it lasted, though. He always enjoyed everything while it lasted. That, more than anything, is what was special about Bob Ponce.
A celebration of Ponce’s life will be held in the outside garden of the Veterans Memorial Building, 112 W. Cabrillo Blvd., at 11 a.m. July 18.