Ponce grew up in East Chicago, Indiana, and graduated from Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, Indiana. He then attended Indiana University and received a B.A. in English in 1971. In 1974 he received a J.D. from the University of Michigan. In 1982 he joined the Chicago CBS station WBBM-TV as a reporter. In 1992, he began his career at WTTW11 as a correspondent for Chicago Tonight — a position he held until 1997 when he left to become one of Jim Lehrer's supporting anchors on the national PBS show, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. He returned to Chicago two years later as the successor to long-time Chicago Tonight host, John Callaway (Callaway later hosted WTTW's Friday Night program). Ponce also teaches journalism at Loyola University Chicago where he is the university's distinguished journalist in residence.
He has received numerous awards for his work. In 2007, he was an honorary inductee into Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society. Other awards include Illinois Journalist of the Year, the Studs Terkel Award and the IU Latino Alumni Award.
Ponce's wife, Ann Ponce, is a Chicago portrait and landscape artist. Ponce's daughter, Maria Ponce, is a photographer in Chicago. Ponce also has two sons. Dan Ponce is the founder of the a cappella group, Straight No Chaser, and was a television reporter with ABC7 (WLS-TV) in Chicago for three years until leaving in January 2009. Dan returned to Chicago television in September 2010 with WGN-TV. His other son, Anthony Ponce, is currently a television reporter with NBC5 (WMAQ-TV), also in Chicago. All have degrees from Indiana University and Ponce's sons also have graduate degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.