By KIRAN MALIK-KHAN, Connect Contributor
Tom Morimoto will always be an important part of Fort McMurray’s history. The WWII veteran, chemical engineer, author, and most recently TedXFortMcMurray speaker passed away peacefully in Kelowna, BC, on December 14, 2015 at 97.
Born on May 18, 1918, in Edmonton, Morimoto was not quite the age of three when his family moved to Fort McMurray in 1921. A radio operator, Morimoto joined the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals and Third Canadian Division in 1940, a year after World War II broke out. Despite his short height, he was 5’2” and slender build, weighing in at only 116 lbs., he made it in.
Due to his outstanding performance, he was made corporal, and was believed to be the only Japanese Canadian on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
It was during the war, he decided to go to university. According to his memoir Breaking Trail: From Canada’s Northern Frontier to the Oil Fields of Dubai (2007) when he shared this idea with a superior, he scoffed at him, and teased him about being 27, too old for university, as well as for being a Japanese.
“I had discovered during my time in the service that you can say almost anything to an officer as long as you follow it up with ‘sir.’ So I replied, ‘I don’t give a damn what you say, sir. I intend to go to university.”
Morimoto graduated from the University of Alberta with a BSc in chemical engineering, and with an MSc in 1952. He spent many years working in the oil industry, travelling as far as Dubai.
During his TEDxFortMcMurray talk on February 21, 2015, he spoke of working along many local historical figures in the “Gateway to the North.”
“Long before the railroads, or highway, the only way to travel to Fort McMurray, was through water. Therefore, goods had to be transported during summer, and in winter with a dog team, or on foot,” recalled Morimoto, as he spoke to an audience of over 250.
Recalling his early days as a radio operator, and working alongside famous local pilot, Wop May, Morimoto humorously shared, “I worked for many years without any pay. They finally paid me $30 a month. This is where I learned Morse Code. I spent five years, and four months in the army, mostly in England.”
Councillor Phil Meagher knew of Morimoto when he moved to Fort McMurray 33 years ago.
“I knew of him by reading the history of Fort McMurray, I wanted to find out as much about this new home of mine as I could. Well, the Morimoto name was a big part of why this community survived the 30s. Right by the Snye, they grew potatoes, which saved the town. This is where Morimoto Drive is now, named to honour the family’s contributions.”
“Tom was a very interesting character, he learned boxing to take care of schoolyard bullies. When he was here about a year ago, he actually demonstrated some of his fancy footwork and lightning fast hands at the age of 96,” said Meagher.
“He loved Fort McMurray. I guess my favourite memory of Tom would have been the ‘Thank You’ note he sent me about four years ago. He was thanking me for not allowing the admin of the day at City Hall to remove Morimoto Drive. He sent me a copy of his book, as well. My hope is to live as long as he did, still golf three times per week at the age of 97.”
Well-known community leader, and visual artist Russell Thomas recalls speaking to Morimoto for the first time over the phone.
“I was absolutely struck by the fact he was a living conduit to some of the most important figures from our history. Hearing him talk about the kindness of Wop May was somewhat surreal. When I finally met him in person, I was blown away by the strength of his grip. That’s a handshake I will never forget. He certainly left a strong impression on me, more so after I read his book Breaking Trail. That is why I decided to paint a mural of him on my shed.”
The kindness Thomas is referring happens to be Wop May sending Morimoto’s ticket to Fort McMurray to attend his mother’s funeral in 1938 when Morimoto was unemployed, and had no money.
Matt Youens, TEDxFort McMurray chair, also interacted with Morimoto for the first time through a phone call.
“The TEDxFortMcMurray organizing committee had decided to push the event back several months, and instead of a fall event, it would now be a winter event – in February no less. As chair, I wanted to call or meet with all the presenters personally to assess the situation and I ended up having a charming conversation with Tom,” shared Youens.
“After the pleasantries he gave me a little ribbing about changing the date on him, and he then told me that he thought his “Fort McMurray in February days were behind me.” But like the class act I had heard about, Tom agreed and said he would be thrilled to present in February. In the end it was a pleasure meeting Tom, working with him, and then introducing him to the TEDxFortMcMurray stage. Some of the stories he told onstage and offstage were memorable, as well as funny. If memory serves it wasn’t even that cold for the event, perhaps Tom had brought some BC weather with him. He will be missed, though he has left quite the legacy behind,” added Youens.
Predeceased by his son Dana, Morimoto is survived by his wife H. Kim of 69 years, and many family members.
A celebration of his life was held on December 20, 2015 in Kelowna. On the same day, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor and Council directed flags at all municipal buildings to be lowered to half-mast in recognition of Morimoto’s many contributions to the region.
– Connect Weekly –