News photographer donates one million photographic images

A veteran newspaper photographer is credited with donating approximately one million photographic negatives spanning 33 years of San Diego history — from the construction of the Coronado Bridge to the restoration of iconic buildings in Balboa Park — as well as daily events documenting life, particularly in North County, over several decades.

Dan Rios, photographer for the Escondido Times-Advocate and North County Times newspapers from 1968 to 2001, donated his collection of photographic negatives to the Special Collections at Cal State San Marcos University Library. The collection includes photographic prints, slides, contact sheets and correspondence.

The library has named the collection “Dan Rios Papers” and is hosting a celebration on July 23 for the collection’s opening to the public. Funds are raised to preserve the collection.

Rios’ collection began in 1977 when Times-Advocate editors were preparing to discard old newspaper negatives to make room for newsroom expansion. But Rios, now 83, saw great value in the archives and wanted to save them.

“It was my photography teacher, Mr. Bill Dendle, who instilled in us the importance of saving our negatives forever,” Rios said. “From him I learned to cherish them and keep them close to my heart.”

“I knew I had to save them from the dumpster,” Rios said.

Among Rios’ collection is a photo of “Henry Rodriguez, Former Activist, Chief of the Luiseno Tribe, La Jolla Reservation.”

(Photo by Dan Rios. Image from Dan Rios Papers, California San Marcos State University Library Special Collections.
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So he took them home and stored them in his garage – boxes and boxes on shelves everywhere.

“My lovely wife Theresa has never complained about it all these years,” Rios said. He filed them by year and date and carefully numbered them.

"Archie Moore, famous retired heavyweight boxer, namesake road paving ceremony - Ramona [California].

“Archie Moore, Famous Retired Heavyweight Boxer, Namesake Road Paving Ceremony – Ramona [California].

(Photo by Dan Rios. Image from Dan Rios Papers, California San Marcos State University Library Special Collections.

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The collection contains historically significant photos of presidents and Hollywood movie stars visiting San Diego and landmark events – the building of what are now local landmarks as well as daily life.

“I photographed everything,” Rios said.

The collection of negatives includes photos from the early years of the San Diego Chargers, the construction of the San Diego Sports Arena and the restoration of old buildings in Balboa Park, the historic tall ship Star of India underway in the bay with fires, floods, murder trials and local heroes.

The collection includes a photo of former President Richard Nixon and First Lady Patricia Nixon taken during a visit to Camp Pendleton for the 200th anniversary of the Marine Corps in 1975.

Rios particularly enjoyed doing portraits because he enjoyed meeting people. He remembers taking a number of photos of visiting movie stars such as Debbie Reynolds, Danny Kaye and Vincent Price as well as dignitaries such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher .

"General Colin Powell visits San Diego.  Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff."

Rios’ collection includes this photo: “Gen. Colin Powell visits San Diego. Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.
From a 1991 visit to San Diego.

(Photo by Dan Rios. Image from Dan Rios Papers, California San Marcos State University Library Special Collections.
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Among Dan Rios' collection is a photo of Margaret Thatcher

Among Rios’ collection is a photo of Margaret Thatcher: Britain’s former prime minister visiting Camp Pendleton.

(Photo by Dan Rios. Image from Dan Rios Papers, California San Marcos State University Library Special Collections.

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It took a big Penske truck and two burly men to transport Rios’ donation of several hundred boxes of negatives and documentation to the university library in the spring of 2018, after a year of working out the details of the acquisition with Cal State. San Marcos Dean Jennifer Fabbi and Special Collections Librarian Judith Downie.

Rios' collection includes this photo and description: An elderly man biting a live snake in front of a microphone.

Rios’ collection includes this photo and description: An elderly man biting a live snake in front of a microphone.

(Photo by Dan Rios. Image from Dan Rios Papers, California San Marcos State University Library Special Collections.
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Since the donation was made, Cal State San Marcos Kellogg Library archivists have worked with Rios to sort through the approximately 40,000 labeled envelopes, each containing a number of images, to create a searchable database of the collection of negatives.

The negatives have been cataloged and referenced, but due to the sheer volume of the collection, it is too expensive to digitize each image, according to Special Collections Manager Sean Visintainer, who leads the archival processing of the collection.
Instead, negatives are digitized free of charge on demand in digital format.

Rios was invited to find a permanent home for the negatives by a group of Escondido historians associated with the Escondido Library’s archives center, The Pioneer Room, including Lucy Berk, Alexa Clausen and Bob Will, members of the board of the Pioneer Room Friends.

Five years ago, the collection was accepted by Fabbi, who is working to establish a special collections department at the library. Other major collections include the business archives of the Ecke family, known for its international trade in poinsettias, and the “Brewchive,” an ongoing historical collection of San Diego’s craft beer industry.

“This collection was gifted to the CSUSM University Library to make it its home before we really had the capacity to care for it, as we needed to hire key positions who would have the expertise to appraise it. That said, it didn’t take much to convince me of the importance of these images in documenting and preserving San Diego County’s history,” Fabbi said.

“Dan’s story in creating these images is remarkable in itself, and the images – which we are now able to actively manage – document one of the most active periods of development and growth North County has ever seen – and all of this before digital photography technology was widely available,” Fabbi said.

Rios’ story of his love of photography dates back to the age of 26, when he worked at Mesa Community College and studied civil engineering. He had dropped out of school in eighth grade and started his own landscaping business when he was 16, which was so successful that he hired his father and was later able to pay his school fees.

A teacher urged him to find a hobby, so Rios enrolled in an evening photography class at the San Diego Adult School.

“I spent hours and hours in the darkroom developing images – I went through 100 feet of film in a week – I loved it,” Rios said. He then attended San Diego City College, where he studied photography with an emphasis on commercial and industrial.

He learned to develop color photography while working for an advertising agency and later helped the Times-Advocate switch from all black-and-white to color photography and eventually served as chief photographer.

“I don’t want any recognition – I just want the photos saved,” Rios said.

To support the long-term use of the Rios collection, the university is hosting a fundraiser through July 27 at bit.ly/CSUSMDanRios.

The community is invited to tag and comment on the scanned photos which will be posted continuously until June next year at flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/collections/72157720790605016.

Michael E. Marquez