John LeBaron, a descendant of west Sonoma County pioneers who developed a keen eye and artistic perspective into a long career as a respected photographer and teacher, died Wednesday.

The retired Press Democrat chief photographer and Santa Rosa Junior College instructor delighted in running the streets and hiking local trails until age and ailments slowed him in recent years.

He suffered a serious stroke on Jan. 25 and was looking forward to going home from Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital when he succumbed to another stroke Wednesday morning. He was 85.

LeBaron was born to a prominent and deeply rooted family in the ranch town of Valley Ford on Oct. 22, 1928, and he grew up there. Fresh out of SRJC in 1948, he took a job at The Press Democrat.

"He was working as a switchboard operator when I first came there," recalled Art Volkerts, the newspaper's former longtime editor-in-chief. "Shortly, they discovered he was pretty good with a camera."

LeBaron was promoted to photographer and before long, said Volkerts, was the newspaper's ace. He became photo chief and over the course of 20 years earned numerous professional awards, many for photos featuring Sonoma County landscapes, characters and nature.

LeBaron was a bachelor fond of sports cars when, in 1955, he met a Cal Berkeley student and summer-break PD reporter named Gaye Notley. They married in June of 1958.

Gaye LeBaron went on to become the newspaper's premier columnist and widely respected chronicler of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County history. In 1963, her husband began teaching photography in night classes at SRJC.

Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in America. Sonoma County supervisors and Press Democrat editorials found no relevance locally, as they perceived there to be no poverty in the county.

PD reporter Jacques Levy engaged John LeBaron, and they set out to find poverty -- and did. Their five-part series ultimately sparked the creation of anti-poverty programs that included Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity, the current Community Action Partnership.

John LeBaron left the newspaper in 1968 to become SRJC's second public information officer. He was still teaching photography at night when he applied to become the Art Department's first full-time photography instructor.

"He was a very clear choice," said Brook Tauzer, who retired from SRJC after 31 years as a history instructor, dean and the school's first academic vice president.

"He was the new dimension in the Art Department," Tauzer said.

Among the students whose lives were changed by LeBaron was Kent Porter, since 1987 an award-winning photojournalist with The Press Democrat. Porter recalls his mentor and friend telling him in the early '80s, "You've got to be truthful in your photography."

Porter added, "Seriously, I owe my entire career to John."

The instructor who would succeed LeBaron upon his retirement 17 years ago, Renata Breth, valued him as a photojournalist who transitioned beautifully into "the art of photography for its own sake."

"He was an all-around photographer," Breth said. "He had such a fine sense of design and humor.

"And he was an extremely kind person. It was hard not to like John, because he was so evenly tempered and low-key."

Artist and former SRJC art instructor Maurice Lapp appreciated that LeBaron brought to students "a sense of what photography was all about. He brought the art of photography to a high level."

Another of the photographer's passions was running.

Gaye LeBaron said the healthful pursuit began in the early 1970s during a visit to seaside Santa Barbara. "He started running on the beach and he never stopped," she said.

John LeBaron also savored hiking, especially as a member of a clutch of fellow SRJC retirees who dubbed themselves the Over the Hill gang.

Veteran environmentalist and former Sonoma County Supervisor Bill Kortum took part in some of the hikes. He said the reverence his friend, the former Valley Ford farm boy, felt for the county's natural spaces was evident in his photos, including those that persuaded local leaders of the value of the county's "Heritage Roads."

"He had that feel of western Sonoma County," Kortum said. "He was born and raised there, and he loved it."

"We need some of those people around."

In addition to his wife in Santa Rosa, LeBaron is survived by his son, Tony LeBaron of Santa Rosa; daughter Suzi LeBaron of Oakland; and one grandson, Trent.

You can reach Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.