Marci Stenberg, a longtime photographer for the Merced Sun-Star and a fixture around town, died suddenly Friday.
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said it appeared that Stenberg collapsed while getting ready for work. Concerned colleagues called police when she didn't arrive at the office and they could not reach her. Officers went to Stenberg's home and found her body inside.
Pazin said the cause of death appeared to be natural; there were no signs of forced entry or foul play.
An autopsy will be scheduled to determine the cause of death, said Pazin, who knew Stenberg well and went to her home Friday to pay his respects.
Pazin called Stenberg, 66, a Merced "icon," well-known throughout the community and a constant presence at everything from spelling bees to crime scenes.
Pazin and colleagues remembered Stenberg's gentle nature and positive outlook. But she also was a determined photographer, not above doing a little "sneaking" to get a better shot, Pazin said.
"She was always very professional, but it could be a little cat-and-mouse game," he said. "I'd see her on one side of the street, then she'd pop up on another."
Mike Conway, public information officer for the city of Merced, worked at the Sun-Star with Stenberg for more than 10 years after she was hired in 1988.
"She had that ability to just connect with people and to make that instant bridge and put people at ease," he said. "They were able to open up to her and she could translate that into film and, later, digital images."
Conway recalled attending a Merced High School football game with his wife, Diane, also a former Sun-Star employee.
"We saw Marci, and she had all her cameras," he said. "We thought she was working, but she was just taking photos."
When she came over to chat, she struck up a conversation with an older man sitting near the Conways. She had shot his photograph 15 or 20 years before for a story, and she remembered the man.
"It was like old home week with him," Conway said.
Modesto Bee Editor Joe Kieta, former editor of the Sun-Star, called Stenberg "the paper's greatest goodwill ambassador. Everybody in the building knew her, and we're hurting now because of this loss."
Stenberg was nearly as well-known for her cooking as for the cameras, fire department pagers and equipment she carried almost constantly. She cooked and baked often for colleagues, once bringing in an entire Thanksgiving dinner for those who worked the holiday.
Colleagues said they will remember her ready smile and her eagerness to do a good job.
"You couldn't ask for an employee with a more positive outlook," said David W. Hill, who took over as managing editor of the Sun-Star last spring. "In many ways, she was the heart and soul of this newspaper."
Former Sun-Star sports editor Joe Cortez said he has never met anyone with more passion for her profession.
"She came to work each day ready to encounter something 'awesome,' to use her favorite word," Cortez said. "Little did she know it was all of us who encountered the awesome."
Funeral arrangements are pending.