ESCONDIDO — Celebrated photographer Dan Rios, who spent decades chronicling North County for local newspapers, has died at 84.
Rios passed away at his Escondido home on Wednesday evening following a long period of illness, according to his wife of 42 years, Theresa Rios.
Recognized as an accomplished photojournalist and mentor in North County, Rios worked as a photographer from 1968 to 2001 for the former Escondido Times-Advocate newspaper, which became the North County Times in 1995.
Through his camera lens, Rios documented happenings in Escondido, San Marcos and other North County cities, San Diego and Mexico. His subjects ranged from everyday scenes at parks, schools and businesses to historic events like the building of the Coronado bridge and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1991 visit to Camp Pendleton.
Rios’s contributions to the community would continue even into retirement when he donated a massive collection of photo negatives from his time at the paper to the Special Collections department of the Cal State San Marcos library in 2018.
Coined as the Dan Rios Papers, the one-of-a-kind collection includes an estimated one million images stashed in over 40,000 envelopes between around 200 boxes. Since then, with the help of students, local historians and community members, library staff have been working to catalog the photos and identify the subjects they show.
As a feature writer and investigative reporter, E’Louise Ondash worked alongside Rios at the Times-Advocate/North County Times for 15 years. She said Rios was “an institution in San Diego journalism circles” with a reservoir of knowledge about San Diego County and a great sense of humor.
“One time, Dan agreed to go to Tijuana with another reporter and me while doing a series of stories on obtaining medical care across the border. He agreed to go because he had a favorite restaurant there, and he really earned his meal. He chauffeured us all over Tijuana even though we had no idea where we were going. It was hot, we had no air-conditioning, and we got lost more than once. Dan’s jokes kept us sane and laughing on what turned out to be a very long day,” Ondash recalled.
Laurie Brindle, another former Times-Advocate colleague and friend who worked in the advertising and art department from 1979 to 2012, described Rios’s warm personality and great skill.
“Dan was an amazing news photographer who had a keen eye for details and great compassion for his subjects. His huge smile, quick wit and wildly contagious laugh are what I will remember the most. And wow, could he ever tell a story,” said Brindle.
Rios grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in the Central Valley and dropped out of school in the eighth grade to labor in the fields to help support his family. His family eventually moved to San Diego, where he worked with his father at a landscaping company.
He would come to photography by chance while enrolled in San Diego City College in his mid-20s, where he was studying English grammar and math to help increase his career prospects.
Rios found a mentor in photography teacher William Dendle, who he said taught him the important lesson of never throwing away photo negatives — a lesson that would benefit the entire North County community when Rios eventually donated his collection.
Escondido historian Alexa Clausen was one of the individuals who first spoke with Rios about donating his collection back in 2017 and helped him sort through and organize the negatives when they were at CSU San Marcos.
Over those six years, this work brought her a friendship with the Rioses that she greatly valued.
“Dan always had time to share many stories about his career and adventures as a newspaper photographer,” Clausen said. “The news of Dan’s passing is, of course, very sad and I will miss these exchanges. However, it’s a great comfort to know that his legacy is locked into the photographs he had taken and are safely stored at the CSUSM archives.”
Rios is also survived by his three children.