It’s early evening in 2003, and Dennis Morimoto is at an art conference dinner in Cincinnati. During the intermission he begins walking around dinner tables. He looks down at a napkin and is stopped by what the napkin reads. Folding it up, he puts it in his pocket, then frames the phrase on his wall at home.
Morimoto now follows the example of the phrase and continues to teach the same to his students: “It’s been said, every activity becomes art when the doer cares about doing it right or doing it better. Our goal is to do it right… and do it better than anyone else.”
Morimoto has been a part of the University of Northern Colorado for over 50 years. Morimoto was a photography professor, a journalism professor, a printmaker and director of the School of Art and Design. He continues to have an impact on campus even after retiring in 2013.
“Ask any of the art professors about Dennis, and you’ll hear a different story about him,” said John Tonai, a photography professor at UNC. “Even though he has been retired for a while, he still impacts students with mentorship and scholarships.”
Originally, Morimoto didn’t come to UNC for the arts program– he came for the baseball team. Morimoto grew up in Denver and attended East High School with 3,400 other students. On several occasions he and his friends would drive up to Greeley to watch the UNC baseball games.
When he graduated high school, he decided to come play for the baseball team.
“After freshman year, I realized that all the other freshmen were better at baseball then me, so I stuck to coaching with Dr. Butler,” Morimoto said, chuckling.
His coach, Dr. L.C. Butler, was head of the physical education department. Butler taught classes and coached for over 10 years; he even had a building on campus named after him, Butler-Hancock.
Morimoto chose his major because the core included drafting, printing, book binding, welding and ceramics. One of his many talents included book binding and printing, so he thought the major would fit well with his interests.
“I chose geography because I was really good at drafting. I figured that if nothing else, I could fall back on drafting maps after college,” Morimoto said.
During his college career, he worked as a book binder to pay for tuition.
“I had the best time working as a book binder,” Morimoto said. “I worked out of Kepner Hall and I worked there for three years.”
In 1965 he graduated with his bachelor’s in industrial arts and technology.
“The only time I left UNC was when I taught at Mankato State (now Minnesota State) in 1965, right after my first graduation,” Morimoto said. “I came back the summer of 1966 and I haven’t left since.”
The following year he received his master’s in the same major with an educational minor.
“I remember graduating and wondering what I was going to do. But then I got invited to teach classes,” Morimoto said. “I lived in the basement of Kepner with all the photo labs and the printing presses. It sounds strange, but to me it felt like home.”
Over the next few years, Morimoto would teach an array of classes. He taught journalism with Charles Ingold, a retired professor of journalism, and art classes with Bill Hartman, a retired UNC art professor.
When he made the transition to director, Morimoto utilized his skills from teaching to do his job.
“It was a lot of technical aspects. It was like running a class, except of only overseeing 20 students and some equipment, you are running an entire school,” Morimoto said. “My motto was ‘Whatever you are doing, leave it in a better place than when you started.’”
As the director, his main duties were to oversee the operation of the art school. This included making schedules, deciding on courses, hiring faculty and managing budgets.
“When Dennis was the director he made the students his main priority,” said Andrew Svedlow, a UNC art history professor. “Everything he did, he did to benefit the students and their education.”
When Morimoto finally retired, he decided to do an art collaboration with 15 of his former students. The art show showcased photography from some of his brightest students. Each student wrote an artist statement, and every one included a piece about Morimoto and how he influenced them.
“I use the fundamentals of art that professor Morimoto taught every day that I am in my studio. I’m privileged to have been Dennis’ student and will always be grateful for the encouragement and knowledge he provided,” said Jeffery Johnson, a studio photographer.
Tonai was one of the students featured in the show, and now he is the only professor of photography at UNC. Morimoto was his mentor and taught him all the aspects of teaching photography.
“Like Dennis, I am big on the technical aspects of photography,” Tonai said. “If you can teach the student how the camera works, the creativity of the student translates to the photos.”
Morimoto has donated several thousand dollars’ worth of scholarships to the art program as well as baseball, jazz, men’s and women’s swimming and photography programs.
He has also contributed to the men’s swim team at West High School. His son was a state national swimmer in high school and Morimoto was the announcer for the meets.
Morimoto has also been a mentor for past and present UNC students, which is one of the aspects he misses most about being a professor.
“In a way, I am still teaching. Whenever an old student has a query, they have my number and can call me up to ask a question,” Morimoto said. “That is what I look forward to, knowing my students know they can ask me anything.”
While still contributing to the UNC community, Morimoto can be found both collecting art from students or having a Cape Cod with a former professor at Fat Albert’s.
Isn’t that frame a part of the copy camera that was in the basement of Kepner? I recall that it used carbon arc lamps (at least it did in the ’80s) and Dennis seemed to have a lot of fun turning it on to scare the first time users.