Beloved SRJC teacher John LeBaron dies at 85

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.

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