Over the years, juniors reading “Beowulf” in Rich Fujimoto’s class turned in the following projects: a translation of the novel into Newspeak (from the novel “1984”), a comic book retelling the centuries old English epic, and a warm dish of the Scottish sheep-stomach pudding known as haggis.
“I was always a person who believed you need to let everybody shine in something,” he says. “And so with this project, which was really not structured...I think it allowed kids to be creative and to basically try something.”
Fujimoto, a member of the Class of 1966, retired at the conclusion of the past school year after 40 years of transforming students with his cherished brand of instruction and guidance. At every stage of his decades as a teacher, the man known affectionately as “Fuj” was a master of creativity and energy, providing both to his young charges and extracting the best out of them.
“It’s all this whole idea of creativity, thought, imagination, releasing the imagination, developing the voice, developing your own voice, which is what I’m really, really passionate about,” he says.
“When I’m working on a play, I look at the characters as people who are just sitting,” he says. “They’re sitting someplace waiting to be re-born. And when you get that part, you are taking this character that was written so many years ago and you are giving that person life again.”
One could say that’s what Fujimoto has done in his many roles at Saint Ignatius: English and Fine Arts teacher, mentor, debate moderator, speech coach, and director of band and theater. His performance has undoubtedly touched many lives.
In May, math teacher Dave Sabol ’99—who studied under Fujimoto’s tutelage—presented his now-colleague with a book of letters from former students.
“After I sobbed for two hours,” Fujimoto says, “I got it, and the big thing was ‘Thank you for letting us take chances. Thank you for letting us create.’ And I think that’s the biggest thing with the arts and the biggest thing that arts people can do is to trust the students and just guide them in making choices, and those are invaluable lessons.”
Fujimoto had no classroom training when he was first hired in 1976. But, he figured it out, talking with other teachers but primarily drawing from his vast experiences in the world of acting during that first year.
For instance, instead of simply reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Fujimoto elected to re-stage the trial of Tom Robinson if it were done in current times. “We re-staged ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ because, I can do that,” he says.
Fujimoto left after that year to pursue a dream opportunity as a show director at Kings Island and King Productions, but he discovered that he hated the business component of show biz, so he ended up at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati for 12 years before returning to his Alma Mater.
“It’s been really a very strange journey through life because everything just kind of happened,” he says.
West 30th and Lorain hasn’t seen – or heard - the last of Fuj, whose voice remains the guide for the school’s virtual tour and who is quoted on the walls of the Senior Lounge. He plans to assist as needed with the extracurricular programs that he has helped lead over the years. Just as one can graduate from Saint Ignatius, one can retire from here, but he can never really leave.
“The line in the alma mater, ‘We’re Ignatius Men Forever,’ is more than a song lyric,” Fujimoto says. “It’s a declaration—and a promise.”