Longtime art teacher Tom Moriarty soon to retire
When Tom Moriarty drove into North Branch for the first time in 1974 to be interviewed for an open art teacher position in the district, towering elm trees lined Main Street in the quaint town.
“It was like a canopy, driving down the street before we lost the trees to Dutch elm disease,” Moriarty said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is really cool.’”
The town appealed to him even before he was asked a single question in the interview.
Moriarty was offered the job, and he started in the fall at Main Street School, teaching four sections of eighth-grade art and two sections of ninth- through 12th-grade art while North Branch Area High School was being built.
He and the rest of the high school staff transitioned into the new high school the next year. Moriarty — with the exception of that first month in the high school where he taught out of the teacher’s lounge — has been in the same art classroom for 39 years.
Now, after four decades of teaching, Moriarty has decided to call it a career.
Hobbies turn into a
Growing up in the south metro town of Newport, Moriarty had an interest in art and sports but didn’t know what he wanted to pursue after he graduated from Park High School in Cottage Grove in 1967 and enrolled at Winona State University.
He spent two years at Winona State before going into the Marines for two years.
“I enjoyed it, and more power to them, but that wasn’t one of the things that I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Moriarty said of being a Marine.
He said when he went to finish his college education at Winona State, the advisers pulled him aside and asked him, “What are you doing?”
“My answer was, ‘I don’t know,’” Moriarty said. “So they gave me a series of tests, and it came back art and sports, and I said, ‘Well, yeah, but that’s what I like to do in my spare time as hobbies.’”
The advisers asked Moriarty if he could do his hobbies as a career if he’d be interested in taking that path. He said yes.
So, after changes in majors, Moriarty graduated with a major in graphic arts and teaching; rolled in with the teaching was a sports coaching emphasis.
Teaching, coaching, learning
Moriarty said the first few years in the district were kind of hectic coming up with a new curriculum to teach art students, and he remembered how much then Principal Grant White helped him during those years.
“He just passed away recently,” Moriarty said. “He was a great guy, a mentor to me.”
After Moriarty became a tenured teacher, he got into the flow of the profession and excelled at it.
Moriarty said he felt like he could teach just about any student.
“Even with the kids who said, ‘You can’t teach me anything,’ I was like, ‘Hey, I like a challenge.’”
He took that same approach when coaching football, wrestling and golf at the high school and even when he helped coach his son Greg’s middle school basketball team.
“I believe I can teach anybody a single-leg takedown,” Moriarty said. “I believe I can teach anybody how to do a layup, how to swing a golf club. I can teach them.”
Moriarty has been the instructor most of the time over the past 40 years, but he’s also taken time to learn from his students.
“Every year I’ve had one or two or more students who have been so gifted, and in many ways they have taught me more than I taught them,” Moriarty said.
Moriarty coached football for 36 years at the high school, and he coached for 38 years for golf and 13 years for wrestling.
He has countless memories of big wins and losses and even recollections of seasons when his teams struggled mightily to win, but they had “a heck of a fun time.”
Among those memories are ones that involve a few injuries.
Coaching football, Moriarty broke his nose and dislocated a shoulder. Coaching wrestling, he dislocated an elbow.
“I was horsing around with my quarterback,” Moriarty said of the shoulder injury. “He thought he’d come up and take me down, because he was also a wrestler, and he snuck up behind me. I made a couple of moves, got out of it, and I was going to go for a head throw.”
He added, with a laugh: “I was just going to show him. I went right over the top of him, landed on the point of my shoulder, popped it out, and it was like one of those noises you hear when you take chicken legs apart.
“I heard that in my ear, and I reached up and felt a big hole (around the shoulder). I said, ‘You better go get the trainer.’ Of course, all of them were standing around laughing at me, saying, ‘Get up, you big wuss.’
“I went to a semifinal game that year in a sling and had to explain to all the other coaches what happened to me.”
Plans for retirement
Moriarty said he’s thoroughly enjoyed teaching over the years and he’s taught so many wonderful students and worked with many great colleagues too numerous to mention, but he feels now is the time to step away from the profession.
He wants to give another line of work a try: Mneme therapy.
Since last summer, Moriarty has been working with residents in memory care units at area senior living facilities.
“I do a little bit of singing, some testing stuff to see where their cognitive skills are, and then we do a directed painting,” he explained.
He said some residents struggling with aliments that affect their memory really open up during the process and talk to him, and others simply give him a smile after their paintings are complete.
“It’s really quite special,” he said of the experience.
Moriarty explained he got interested in Mneme therapy after a Mneme therapist did a painting with his father, Dan, when he was in a memory care unit before he died in 2012.
In addition to the art therapy, Moriarty said he looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Terri, who has been a elementary school teacher in the district for 30 years, and his three children, Jeff, Greg and Michelle, and their families.
Jeff Moriarty and some friends recently opened a brewery and tap house in St. Paul called Tin Whiskers Brewery, and Moriarty said it’s been fun being involved in that process, as well.
Colleagues laud Moriarty’s dedication to teaching
North Branch Area High School Assistant Principal Glen Stevens, social studies teacher Matt Lattimore and Principal Coleman McDonough took some time last week to reflect upon what Moriarty has meant to the district over the past four decades.
“I only worked with Tom for three years but figured out very quickly that he was a very well-respected member of the staff who loved the kids,” Stevens wrote in an email. “As an assistant principal, I am sometimes privy to things students say about teachers, whether I want to hear them or not. I have never, ever heard a student say a bad thing about Mr. Moriarty. He is loved and respected by everyone at NBAHS and for good reason. He will leave a lasting legacy of excellence and commitment to the students and community of the North Branch area. Semper Fi, Mort.”
Stevens added: “I never saw the man in a bad mood. He was always so positive and friendly. What a great way to be a teacher and live your life!”
Lattimore has known Moriarty since he was a student at the high school.
“Having been a player for Mort and now a colleague, the one thing I have to say about him (he has a) positive attitude,” he wrote. “No matter what was happening around us, Mort always had a story or a joke to make you feel better and to put things into perspective. He is a legend and will be sorely missed by all!”
McDonough had similar kind words about the longtime art teacher.
“Tom Moriarty has been a pillar in the North Branch educational community for the past 40 years. … He has the uncanny ability to develop great relationships with kids,” McDonough wrote. “He has also been a strong leader and mentor to so many staff over the years, myself included. His impact in the classroom, on the field, the mat, in the hallways and in the staff lounge will be missed. NBAPS says goodbye to a legend. Thank you, Mort!”