By Glenn Kahl
Renowned portrait photographer Dale Johnson came to Manteca in 1949 — fell in love with the community — and left his heart in the town — his town — when he passed recently at the age of 97.
Johnson, who had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and his wife Pat made their living with a photography studio operation that touched countless families in the community as he photographed and recorded many celebrations of life in the town then approaching a population of 2,000 — — with weddings, engagements, high school senior portraits and some news photography for the town’s then weekly newspaper.
Traffic accident assignments in and around Manteca touched his heart as he witnessed mortally injured motorists waiting up to an hour for an ambulance called from Stockton to take them to a hospital in that city to the north.. Manteca did not have a hospital at that time and it didn’t have an ambulance to transport the injured with many of them passing away as they waited for life-saving medical care.
The ambulance would be housed at the Bergthold Mortuary across from the U.S. Post Office on Center Street. A typical run would see mortician Charles Bergthold pulling the ambulance out of the garage behind his mortuary and Dale running the three blocks from his photography studio to team up with Bergthold answering the call for help.
Johnson was later elevated to the Manteca Hall of Fame for all his community involvements over the years and his portrait can be seen on a wall in the Manteca Transit Center at the corner of Moffat Boulevard and South Main Street today. The Manteca Ambulance conference room located at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Center Street bears his name.
The much-loved Manteca couple opted to make a retirement center move in Manteca years ago with Dale caring for his wife hurting his back in the process. Unable to walk on her own Dale would lift his bride out of bed and put her in her wheel chair so she could enjoy to comfort of their living room. He would also physically put her in their bathtub trying to ignore the strains to his back — in their 90s and still in love.
The Johnson Studio was located in the 100 block of West Yosemite Avenue when a fledgling new business — Tipton’s Stationery — opened a couple doors away. Dale would have a definite gift for the new store selling them his camera shop and Hallmark gift cards operation to their store and focusing on just photography. He passed this week 58 years later and Tipton’s Stationery and Gifts has doubled in size and is one of the few downtown businesses that has survived the years. Tipton’s owner, Bea Bowlsby, remembers the transition well that spurred their business to new heights — now run by daughter Brenda Franklin.
A group of early business women in the downtown came up with countless positive ideas for the community that made a difference in its movement and its public relations in the growing town. Few knew that the impetus behind the programs actually came from Johnson who they talked with regularly. Dale also left his mark in guiding the future of the city by serving on its Planning Commission.
In recent years Dale lived alone in the retirement center sitting with a longtime friend at a dinner table in the dining room — his eyes failing and few friends visiting him. They both had contracted the same illness and went to the same rehab center in North Modesto where Dale died a week later.
Dale was a good competitor in the photography business with our studios across Yosemite Avenue from each other. The pleasure was mine in taking family portraits of his daughter Pat’s and sons’ families with him and Pat. We talked often in that dining room at dinner time and in his second floor apartment recalling past years in the community.