Photojournalism instructor Gary Kohatsu set to retire


Photojournalism instructor Gary Kohatsu has been a part of the journalism department at El Camino College as both a student and instructor for a period spanding over 30 years, and has been quietly preparing to transition out as he officially will be retiring in June. Photo credit: Jose Tobar

Fifty years after his father was the subject of a tragic news story, El Camino College photojournalism instructor Gary Kohatsu finds himself in the spotlight of his own news story only his tale ends on a quieter note.

Just past midnight on Feb. 4, 1969, the day he was to start high school, 14-year-old Gary Tadashi Kohatsu learned that his father was severely injured.

Larry Yoki Kohatsu, 47, was shot twice during an armed robbery that was carried out at a World Oil gas station in Santa Monica, where he was working the graveyard shift.

The elder Kohatsu died two hours later in a Santa Monica hospital after succumbing to his injuries, leaving him and his younger sister to be raised by their mother.

When he read an account of the murder in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Kohatsu’s fate as a journalist was sealed.

He felt “the power of the written word” in the story with the headline: Man Killed, Patron Shot In SM Holdup.”

“It had such a big impact on me that someone could write a story about my father. Somebody that never met him,” Kohatsu, 65, said. “It was so wonderfully written that I think that was the seed that was planted in me.”

Photojournalist Professor, Gary Kohatsu, teaches photojournalism with The Union, ECC student run news paper. Photo credit: Elena Perez

Kohatsu, who had up until then been an adamant track and field buff and runner, used to idolize “legendary high school runners of the 60s” even dreaming at times of running in the Olympics, but learned how the loss of his father would take its toll on him.

“A large part of my psyche was damaged by my dad’s death,” Kohatsu said. “From day one in high school, I could no longer compete. I was deftly afraid. No confidence. But I still dreamed of regaining both my running ability and confidence.”

He competed in cross-country during his sophomore and junior years with “horrific results,” when an injury to his ankle while playing basketball “mercifully ended his athletic pursuits.

While still recovering from his injury, one of Kohatsu’s friends showed him his dad’s new Pentax camera.


Gary Kohatsu
Photojournalism instructor Gary Kohatsu at El Camino College has remained an active reporter, photojournalist and editor for publications like the Gardena Valley News and the Culver City News, seen here covering the Culver City Car Show for CCN on Saturday, May 11. Photo credit: Jose Tobar

I saw that camera and it was like ‘Wow’, ‘that is amazing,'” Kohatsu said. “[My friend] brought the camera to school for a track and field meet and took the pictures that would alter the course of my life. I was invigorated.”


He would never perform as an athlete again, but after saving for a year he managed to purchase his very own Pentax camera in 1971. It was through photography that he found a way to stay connected to the sport he loved so much.

Throughout the 1970s, he freelanced as a photographer for the Track and Field News magazine, while honing his skills as a writer for the Jade Screen, a martial arts fanzine.

Photojournalist Professor retires from teaching at El Camino College. Photo credit: Elena Perez

Then in 1981, he enrolled at L.A. Harbor Community College and finally at El Camino College in ’84 to study journalism. No longer in doubt about what his career path would be, Kohatsu put theory to practice as both photographer and writer for the EC Warwhoop, now The Union.

“By then, I wasn’t looking to test the waters on anything anymore,” Kohatsu said. “At the time, I was definitely thinking journalism. So I got as much out of it as I could. It was a great experience.”

He studied photojournalism at Cal State University, Long Beach, but earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1990. By then, Kohatsu had already started his journalism career in 1989, when he was hired as a photographer and sports writer at the Gardena Valley News.

GVN Editor-in-Chief Robert Murray introduced him to Jolene Combs, adviser of the ECC journalism program. Throughout the 1990s, he worked with the Combs and co-adviser Lori Medigovich, providing internships to many of the best Warwhoop staff writers and photographers.

During this time, Kohatsu also took a refresher journalism course in Combs’ program in 1992-93. In 2002, he returned once more as a student to take the very same photojournalism class that he now teaches.

Gary Kohatsu
The last Photojournalism 6 class to be taught under the tutelage of El Camino College’s Gary Kohatsu poses for a group photo inside The Union newsroom Friday, May 17. “What I’m going to miss most is the people,” Kohatsu said. “It’s the people that makes the classes feel great.” Photo credit: Jose Tobar

As for his students, most had no idea that this would be the final semester they’d enjoy under Kohatsu. But for those like Rosemary Montalvo, 20, the newly appointed photo editor for The Union at EC, the brief time spent under his tutelage will be recalled with affection.

“I will always think of his class as what shaped me into the photographer that I am,” Montalvo said. “He instills confidence in you. And seeing how passionate he is about photojournalism, it moves you.”

He considers himself the type of workaholic who hasn’t taken more than a day off since 2006, to a fault at times. So much so, that it eventually affected his marriage, leading it to eventual divorce in 2007.

Gary Kohatsu
El Camino College adjunct professor Gary Kohatsu on assignment for the Culver City News at Veteran’s Park covering the Culver City Car Show on Saturday, May 11. “I’m usually trying to get three elements out of the photos,” Kohatsu said. “Details, wide shot, and the people, or car owners because it gives me an opportunity to find an interesting story.” Photo credit: Jose Tobar

“He’s definitely a workaholic,” Kohatsu’s ex-wife Judy Senter Rubin said. “He devotes a lot of energy to his work...It didn’t leave much time for us to spend together as a family in that respect. And that’s difficult on any relationship.”

After a 12-year stint as an adjunct photojournalism instructor for EC, Kohatsu is ready to retire in June, marking both the end and the beginning of a huge chapter in his life.

“His retirement will be well deserved after all the work he has done, you know,” Rubin said. “He is a very dedicated professional, and on a personal side, he has a very good heart, and is a very good man.”

Reflecting over the years, he’s worked to prepare future photojournalists, he has embraced the cyclical nature of the journalism department where students and staff often come and go.

And, he’d readily like others to adhere to a Bob Dylan line in “Things Have Changed” when it comes to how he’d like to effect his exit strategy in June that simply reads:

“Please] don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through.”

“It’s been rejuvenating,” Kohatsu said. “Every semester, to work with new people, new ideas, and a new focus. That’s what I’ll miss most. But I don’t feel sad about leaving. Now, I’m just looking forward to the next thing”

Update: 11:55 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, A gallery was made for website visual.