You might not know his name – in fact, when he wrote news stories, they appeared under the pseudonym “Victor Valencia” – but if you’ve been around the Santa Clarita Valley for a while, you’ve seen his photos.
Gary Lee Thornhill, one of the SCV’s leading photojournalists of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, died Saturday. He was 74.
Thornhill had been suffering in recent years from severe arthritis, but when this writer last visited him a few months ago, he was still monitoring police and fire frequencies at his home office in Saugus – as he’d done for years when he was typically the first to arrive at the scene of a violent car crash or brush fire.
Known as “Thorny” to friends, he did more than merely chronicle breaking news. He earned the respect of emergency responders as he did it. He was the SCV Sheriff Station’s first civilian volunteer – only the second in the countywide department – and frequently guest-lectured on accident investigations for COC’s law enforcement classes.
According to retired CHP Sgt. Harry Ingold, a close friend, Thornhill was living in a convalescent home in Sylmar at the time of his death, which came Saturday morning with his wife, Celeste, at his bedside. Ingold said Thornhill asked to be cremated, and services have not yet been announced.
Born Aug. 17, 1938, in Santa Ana, Thornhill was a late-comer to the newspaper game, entering it only after he retired from a 30-year career with Safeway grocery stores.
While Thornhill’s crash scene photographs appeared in The California Highway Patrolman magazine, he was best known locally for his work in The Signal, Daily News, Los Angeles Times and SCV Citizen newspapers – and not just the “hard stuff.” He covered everything from Saturday night races at the Saugus Speedway to Santa Clarita city formation in 1987 to the 1994 Northridge earthquake to beauty contests in Canyon Country that could be, well, revealing.
Thornhill had many press passes; this one was issued by The California Highway Patrolman magazine.
“Gary Thornhill was a legend at The Signal,” former publisher Tony Newhall said Wednesday. “He was a natural born news photographer, always on the lookout for good photos, particularly police stories, like accidents, crime scenes, and fires. He loved to come rushing back to the office at deadline, saying, ‘Have I got a shot for you!’
“It was said that he slept with his police scanner on and would jump when he heard certain codes,” Newhall said. “Gary was the editor’s dream in getting breaking news shots. He will be missed.”
Former Signal Editor Tim Whyte remembers that Thornhill would frequently come into the office in the morning with breaking news photos he’d shot at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.
“He was a 24/7 newsman,” Whyte said. “He wanted to be where the action was, and most of the time he succeeded.”
Longtime Signal journalist John Boston called him a “throwback hero to those old, can-do movies of yesteryear.”
“Like God’s sunlight,” Boston said, “his enthusiasm washed over the good, the evil and the patently shut off from life. Not from any close personal experience, but I know the guy slept surrounded by police scanners and would bound out of bed to get that great photograph for the next day’s paper. He was all energy, good cheer, and I will tell my daughter not just about him, but as a shining example of how to live a life. Better, I’m going to remind myself about how to so fiercely greet and embrace life.”
Working as a freelancer, “Thorny” retained the rights to his work and donated the bulk of his collection earlier this year to two nonprofit organizations – SCVTV and the SCV Historical Society – so that it might continue to educate and inform the public.
For example, his photos of the devastation wrought by the 1998 El Nino weather event were used to illustrate a recent SCVNews.com story about the county’s plans to shore up the Santa Clara River. The photos serve as a reminder that while the SCV enjoys 100-degree temperatures much of the year, flooding can and does occur with little warning, and citizens need to prepare.
Viewed in sum, Thornhill’s photographs demonstrate not only his enthusiasm for immortalizing handcuffed suspects but also for animals – usually dogs and cats, but the occasional squirrel and cow, as well.
Thornhill outside the brand-new Signal office building in 1986.
Some SCV history might not exist in visual form had Thornhill not been there to capture it – from the demolition of the old Bonelli ranch house in Saugus to the move of the Saugus Train Station in 1980 to aerial views of the valley before Stevenson Ranch became a reality in 1988.
Thornhill photographed the construction of The Signal building on Creekside Road that was dedicated to its then-editor, Scott Newhall, in 1986. Loyal to the Newhall family, Thornhill followed Scott and Ruth Newhall when they left the paper two years later to start the rival, thrice-weekly SCV Citizen newspaper out of an office on Valencia Boulevard. It lasted only nine months.
Thornhill stayed in touch even after his breaking news days were behind him. Whyte remembers that after he left The Signal, Thornhill and his wife still would bring cookies to the staff at Christmastime.
Thornhill was particularly fond in recent years of pointing out aerial photos he’d shot of some peculiar activity happening at the contaminated Whittaker-Bermite munitions site in 1990, three years after the company was raided and found to have violated toxic and hazardous materials laws. Thornhill’s 1990 photos appear to show trucks carrying materials for burial in an underground pit on the property.
The bulk of Thornhill’s work is being added over time to SCVHistory.com. To view some of his photographs now, visit the website and search on the words, “Gary Thornhill.”
Thornhill is survived by his wife, Celeste, son Keith of Santa Ana, daughter Brenda Norton of Temecula, nine grandchildren and one great grandchild; and by Celeste’s daughters, Christina David of Newhall and Elizabeth Olson of Incline Village, Nev.