Editor's Note: The second part in a series. Read part 1 here: "From small-time football games to a breaking news story.".
The Sun-Star had a young and talented newsroom staff in the early 1980s. Most of us were in our early 20s and recently out of college.
We worked well together, and following the lead of generations of journalist that preceded us, partied together as well. We were a close group for sure.
Two large news stories took place in 1980 that thrust Merced onto the national stage and turned young journalists into veteran reporters and photographers.
Then-President Jimmy Carter came to Merced College in July to hold one of his town hall meetings. A presidential visit always brings out a certain level of excitement with the national press and all of the hoopla that goes along with it.
But I think the biggest story that happened in those years also took place in 1980. That would be Steven Stayner's reunion with his family after being a kidnapping victim for seven years.
Stayner was just 7 when he was abducted off of a Merced street in December of 1972.
I was just a freshman in high school at the time of the kidnapping and barely remembered the incident until Saturday, March 1, 1980. The first call that I received came shortly after I returned home from a rock-climbing trip to Yosemite.
The city editor at the time was a man named Dave Hendricks. He was a very excitable guy, and I was having a hard time understanding what he was talking about over the phone. It finally became clear that Stayner had been found in Ukiah and after seven years was going to be reunited with his family back in Merced.
My assignment was to go to the Stayner home along with fellow staff photographer and great friend Eric Luse, and a couple of reporters. We were to cover the homecoming of Stayner later that night when members of the Merced Police Department returned with Steven.
Late that night -- I can't recall the exact time -- a blue Merced police detectives car turned onto the jam-packed street. It resembled a crazy block party as dozens of still photographers and TV cameramen swarmed the car trying to record the reunion of Stayner and his parents, who were being escorted through the huge crowd toward the now-parked police car.
I was fortunate to have pushed my way near the car. I had my Nikon F2 with a 24mm wide-angle lens loaded with a fresh roll of 36 exposure Ektachrome 400 color slide film with the ASA pushed to 1600.
I could not see the reunion unfolding in front of me due to some very large bodies with big TV cameras. The best that I could do was raise my camera over my head and point it in the general direction of the reunion. With the camera's motor drive set to full rock-and-roll mode, I pressed down on the shutter release button and fired away.
Later, back in the Sun-Star's photo department, the anticipation ran high as I processed my film. As soon as I pulled the wet, just developed film out of the processing machine I began to go through it frame by frame.
One by one, out of focus, bad composition, picture of somebody's head, another one out of focus. My heart rate now racing, I was running out of options ... then, finally, near the end of the 36 exposures there it was -- one image out of 36 and it was perfect.
Steven embracing his parents, his father with his face buried in his son's neck, his mother, with a look on her face that that is indescribable.
It was tack-sharp, perfectly composed and well exposed. The image had just the slightest orange colorcast from the TV lights. Wet film in hand, I ran into the newsroom to show then-Managing Editor Burt Fogelburg the image. Burt's jaw dropped at the sight of it.
The photo ran in the Monday special edition of the paper. Burt thought enough of the image to run it six columns across the front page. I was fortunate enough to sell the image to papers and magazines around the world.
The Associated Press nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize in spot news photography. It did not win, but it was an honor nonetheless.
You can see the image online at www.jaysousaphotography.com under "galleries" and "The Rangefinder."
Contact Jay Sousa at email@example.com.