Daybreak in the Darkroom

Rob Morrow develops a new career via DCTC

General education?what the flip is it? Academic professionals will form a frosty ring around general education like musk oxen defending their calves, telling you GE’s essential because its ingeniously crafted curriculum of mathematics, English, art, humanities and science courses bucks up and balances your collegiate learning experience, giving you the gift of a broad scholarly foundation. Not to mention GE is required for a baccalaureate degree.

Many students, especially those targeting a specialized career track under a time and money crunch, view general education as a confounding nuisance that spews facts they’ll learn once and forget a thousand times. What difference does it make that Immanuel Kant rumbled out of his silent decade to publish Critique of Pure Reason? Sure, inverse trigonometric functions are sick and kick-ass, but what have they done for you lately? Haven’t you already heard more than enough about the decoding and analysis of van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait? And everyone knows you can learn everything you need to know about psychopathology by watching one episode of True Blood on HBO.

Rob Morrow at home in Northfield, Minn.

Then again, inrushing evidence often unearths substantial clusters of college students who appreciate the mysterious benefits of general education. One such student is Rob Morrow?master film photographer, accomplished musician, high-end interior house painter, future occupational therapist. At age 47, Morrow just completed a series of general education courses at Dakota County Technical College as prerequisites to enrolling at St. Catherine University in St. Paul to pursue a Master of Arts in Occupational Therapy. Morrow felt obligated to jump on his Yamaha motorcycle at his home in Northfield, Minn., and return to the Rosemount campus one day to personally thank the president of the college. He described his time at DCTC as a “first-class educational experience.”

Rob Morrow’s opinion carries weight for a number of reasons. His wife, Annette, chairs the Sociology and Anthropology department at Carleton College, which U.S. News and World Report ranks sixth on its 2012 list of best liberal arts colleges in the nation. Morrow himself earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography with a minor in Fine Art from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Throughout its 72-year history, ACCD has been hailed as one of the finest commercial design schools in the world with a slew of high-profile instructors and graduates.

“I got to Boulder and found myself in class with all these prep school kids who had their Strunk & White down pat. Even though I went to classes, I got a 1.74 GPA. They sent me a letter saying get your grades up or don’t come back.”

Morrow arrived at ACCD in a roundabout way. He graduated from Mound-Westonka High School in 1982 before heading to the University of Colorado-Boulder as a film major. Morrow describes his learning style as eccentric at best. Sharp and precocious as a child, he discovered he could squelch problems presented by his coursework without following conventional rules. During the school year for weeks at a time, he would bounce around the globe with his father (more on that later), intermissions that undermined his academic infrastructure. With his scholarly process also complicated by an undiagnosed anxiety disorder (more on that later), he entered the realm of higher education somewhat unprepared.

“I got to Boulder and found myself in class with all these prep school kids who had their Strunk & White down pat,” Morrow said. “Even though I went to classes, I got a 1.74 GPA. They sent me a letter saying get your grades up or don’t come back.”

Morrow rebounded to Minnesota, regrouped and earned a six-month award in photography from a less-than-illustrious trade school in south Minneapolis. That got him a job as an assistant for a local photographer who just happened to be an ACCD alumnus, one who steered Morrow toward Pasadena. This time he engaged higher education with his colors ready to fly.

Photo from City of Quartz“I was a student representative for the Photography department every term I was there,” said Morrow, who graduated from ACCD in 1990. “All the departments as a collective would vote on who was going to speak for the college as one voice. They picked me.”

In that role, Morrow gave the student address at graduation (he followed the president of Chrysler). His talked about his sister, Marna, dying of cancer during his senior year at Art Center and what that meant to him. Marna’s death shaped the direction of his photography and helped place him on his current career path to become an occupational therapist.

“I had been at a commercial art school where I had wanted to be a photographer with my own studio, one complete with a pool table,” he said. “I had wanted rock ‘n’ roll and girls and beer.”

Morrow was now seeing things differently. He wanted his work to reflect the humanistic values of his family. Morrow’s compassionate take on life dates back to his childhood. The last of six children with a 12-year gap between his birth and that of his closest sibling, he was the only one left at home when his father, Robert Morrow, the former CEO of Walman Optical, the nation’s largest independent ophthalmic company, decided to take him along on charitable adventures with the Minnesota chapter of VOSH, or Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity.

“I remember telling someone at my father’s funeral that he was in the optical industry,” Morrow said. “Patrick O’Neil, O.D., an optometrist my father helped start in business, overheard and interrupted. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Rob’s father was the optical industry.’”

During his career, Morrow’s father sat on all the major boards in the optical industry, using his clout and contagious philanthropic nature to harness donations from his colleagues. Robert Morrow was universally admired for his humanitarian spirit, so much so Walman named a company-wide award after him.

“I remember telling someone at my father’s funeral that he was in the optical industry,” Morrow said. “Patrick O’Neil, O.D., an optometrist my father helped start in business, overheard and interrupted. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Rob’s father was the optical industry.’”

Rob Morrow image: Head

Plucked from school, Morrow would join teams of optometrists, ophthalmologists, opticians and lay volunteers to help disadvantaged people in remote locations, providing eyeglasses, treating eye diseases and performing eye surgeries. His extended trips took him to Guatemala, Togo, India, Colombia and Tanzania (he climbed Kilimanjaro during some time off). In Guatemala, specifically the obscure village of San Lucas Taliman, people trekked for days to get to the VOSH clinic, bringing everyone and everything, even livestock.

Because of his youth, Morrow was given the task to dispense eyeglasses?in some cases with enormously powerful magnifying lenses to correct clouded vision due to cataracts. Grandparents afflicted with cataracts for years would arrive with grandchildren they recognized by every sense save vision.

“They knew the smell, the sound, the feel?everything about their grandchildren except how they looked,” said Morrow, who handed out eyewear after finding the best match he could in the clinic’s stock. “They would put on the glasses and see their grandchildren for the first time.”

Morrow recalled how the grandparents would start weeping, their tears made amazingly huge by the magnifying lenses of their new glasses. They would return the next day with handmade baskets as symbols of their gratitude.

City of Quartz by Mike Davis | Photographs by Robert Morrow

With those memories and his love for Marna guiding his way, Morrow concluded his time at ACCD by collaborating with social historian, Mike Davis, now a creative writing professor at UC Riverside, on City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, a critically lauded work that foreshadowed the 1992 L.A. riots and morphed into a go-to textbook for numerous urban sociology courses. Morrow contributed the black-and-white photography for the book, including the cover shot of a brand-new L.A. Detention Center. In the acknowledgements, Davis writes: “Robert Morrow and I cruised the mean streets; his photos speak for themselves.”

The success of City of Quartz tossed Morrow into a bustling freelance photography career in another megalopolis?New York City. But just as his professional life was taking off, his personal life faltered as symptoms of a full-bore anxiety disorder surfaced, symptoms brought on by Marna passing away, his father having a heart attack, his mother, RoseNell, undergoing major surgery, and his long-time girlfriend calling it quits.

“I left Art Center and went to New York to be a star,” Morrow said, “but my world just got smaller and smaller as I suffered from the effects of panic attacks.”

Morrow illuminated the horror of a panic attack as something typically unconnected to complex activities. It’s the simple things that set one off, ushering in shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pains, nausea, sensations of smothering and more. The severity of the symptoms increases the anxiety, hatching a positive feedback loop. People hit by panic attacks feel as if they are dying.

“I would start making a peanut butter sandwich and suddenly realize I didn’t know if I could do it,” he said. “When the anxiousness was at its most powerful, I didn’t know what was going on. You can’t process it. You just know you can’t rely on your brain.”

Rob Morrow image: "Ruby"

Lumped with the ascendancy of digital photography?the pixelated wonders of Photoshop and Lightroom can shine as alien to old-school film photographers?Morrow’s anxiety disorder command x-ed his photography career. For a time, he taught art and photography to developmentally disabled adults in Claremont, Calif., a topline experience that further aligned his trajectory toward occupational therapy.

For two years, he lived alone except for his dog, Nemo, in a cabin in the north woods near Alborn, Minn. He also stayed for a time in a beach house on the Pacific Ocean, a bunker-like dwelling belonging to his brother Barry Morrow, the same Barry Morrow who won an Academy Award for his work on the screenplay for Rain Man.

“I would start making a peanut butter sandwich and suddenly realize I didn’t know if I could do it. When the anxiousness was at its most powerful, I didn’t know what was going on. You can’t process it. You just know you can’t rely on your brain.”

During his seclusion in the cabin, Morrow met Barry Lopez, author of several fiction and nonfiction books, including Arctic Dreams, the winner of the 1986 National Book Award. Morrow drove six hours to Minneapolis to attend one of Lopez’s book readings and the two made an instant connection. Lopez counts Rob Morrow as one of his greatest friends.

“Rob is a remarkable man,” said Lopez, a world-renowned environmentalist who resides with his wife in the Oregon wilderness near Finn Rock in a house overlooking the McKenzie River. “He is the essence of generosity. He understands people in difficult straits. His grace and compassion know no bounds.”

Scaredy Cat Blackie

Lopez is also a fan of Morrow’s band, Scaredy Cat Blackie. At one point in his upbringing, Morrow studied piano at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. He later forged friendships with musicians Patrick Brayer, David Lindley, Ben Harper and Chris Darrow, the latter giving him his first acoustic lap steel guitar.

Where American music meets rural electrification is how Morrow describes the sound of Scaredy Cat Blackie. The bands debut CD, Angst Before Tone, has been reviewed as a must-own for “Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown and Bob Dylan fans.” The CD can be found on Rhapsody, Amazon and Napster.

Morrow is making plans to enroll at St. Kate’s in 2012 with all his DCTC general education credits transferring like clockwork. He earned a 4.0 GPA and took some tough courses, too, including Anatomy and Physiology, Statistics and General Biology.

“My anxiety disorder prevented me from pursuing all the new things I needed to stay current in the photography industry,” he said. “You seek help. You see good people. You do a lot of reading and research. When you get to the other side, all you want to do is help people you see struggling with those same things.”

Morrow is hoping to focus on anxiety-related disorders as they occur in an educational setting. He views that as the mainstay of his occupational therapy career. That approach doesn’t exist right now as a specialty, but Morrow’s coursework at DCTC has cast a brighter light on his goal.

“I’ve been involved with institutions of many types all my life,” Morrow concluded. “I have never been as impressed, in total, as I’ve been with my experience at DCTC.”

General education?what the flip is it? Now you know.

For more information about General Education at DCTC, contact:

Rob Morrow

One Response to Daybreak in the Darkroom

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