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To Her, With Love

Celebrating the singular Kaori Kitao

Kaori Kitao, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor Emerita of Art History, taught at Swarthmore from 1966 to 2001.

To many, she’s a legend, and one of the College’s all-time best educators—just see for yourself: Read her credentials, Swarthmore profile, and retirement/Baccalaureate address.

When we asked to honor her in this teaching-themed Bulletin, however, she had a request:

“Swing the spotlight on the audience!” she said. “It should be much more interesting than the character on the stage and her soliloquy.” 

As anyone who knows Kaori discovers, it’s always best to heed her wisdom. As she wishes, the audience speaks below. (Relish her own inimitable words on her blog.)


“Kaori taught me how to look and see and understand. As a sophomore, I had the good fortune of taking her Renaissance and baroque architecture class. When I was traipsing through Italy the next year, I brought my notebook from that course so I could be guided by Kaori.

“My Swarthmore education was standing in her doorway or sitting in her office, talking about art and architecture and politics and feminism. She really encouraged us to question authority, scholarly and otherwise. I ended up questioning hers when I wanted to write a thesis instead of doing a senior reading. Kaori was the chair of the department and changed the rules, so it became an option for everyone.

“She was so wonderful and flexible and appreciated the kind of student I was. She’s so brilliant—a force of nature. She’s a giant.”


“During an architecture lecture in 1979, Professor Kitao was showing slides and came to an off-center one: mostly roof line and streetlight. Without changing her tone, she said, ‘And this is what happens when you are always looking up.’ She had such a playful sense of humor. I still spend a lot of time looking up in new places, but always remember to check where I’m putting my feet!”

CONNIE HUNGERFORD, Mari S. Michener Professor of Art History

“When I came to the College in ’75, Kaori was a senior colleague—very dynamic and welcoming—and a great lecturer. She ribbed students, but she was always totally respectful. She had high standards, and they were pleased to deliver. Also—perhaps because she had been one herself—she was sensitive to the needs of international students.

“I’d say she was the most actively engaged person with architecture on campus and was responsible for some of the quality architects we hired. She was relentless about the importance of architecture, that these are not just buildings, but statements about who we are, what our aspirations are, and where we come from. Look around campus—she is behind some of the more imaginative buildings.

“More than the buildings, her legacy is her students and her sense of delight in discovery and inspiring that in them, too. It is fitting that the Kitao Gallery was named for her, and she’s done other things for the College that are surprising, like a math lecture she endowed. And she gave the funds to establish a student internship program in the List Gallery.

“She was also the first person on campus who was really interested in film, and her courses were hugely important—not just the film history but the projects she had students doing with primitive 8 mm cameras. She was always a model of developing new interests and exploring them thoroughly.”


“I have a deep fondness in my heart: She was the best teacher I ever had. I remember a hard, long conversation about city design we had that changed how I thought about everything.

“She was Timothy then, but my junior year, she was on sabbatical. She went to Rome and came back much transformed: Her hair had grown long, and she was wearing these fabulous bright shirts—beautiful deep pinks, yellows, oranges. We all said, ‘Wow, what was she up to in Rome?’

“The first time I met her as a woman, it took me a second, but we all agreed that it was very gutsy what she did and that it was just good to have her back.”


“Kaori’s always been an inspiration and a mentor—she has such empathy. I met her as Timothy and saw the gradual transition, and, even though we never talked about it, I knew what she was going through. I’m Hispanic, and when I was at Swarthmore, I was in the minority. But the beauty of Swarthmore is its philosophy to bring out the light in you. And that’s what Swarthmore did for me, and what I feel Swarthmore did for Kaori.

“She’s been my favorite teacher since ’71. The first day of class, she said, ‘If English is not your native language, you can write in any language you want, because I know nine.’ (She knows 13 now, I believe.)

“After our first paper, she said, ‘I’m going to read you an example of A+ work, but I’m not going to mention the name.’ She starts reading in Japanese, and there’s only one Japanese student in the class. Everyone laughed—she set the tone for us all to have great senses of humor.”

HARRY WRIGHT, former provost, and JOSY WRIGHT

HW: “We lived close by. As he was transitioning, we’d notice little things as he walked by our house: a new shoulder purse, for example. After we got back from vacation one time, we asked how Kaori was doing. Somebody said, ‘Well, now he’s using the women’s bathroom—they don’t mind, but they do wish he would leave the toilet seat down.’”

JW: “At the drugstore, Kaori and I would talk about colors of lipsticks. Most people were accepting, but the art department didn’t quite know what to do.”
HW: “People caught on when the artist Robert Motherwell gave a lecture at Swarthmore. After Kaori introduced him, he said, ‘I want to thank Madame Chairman.’ That sealed it publicly.”
JW: “To have been there—in that age, to hear it said aloud—was amazing. We always liked Kaori very much. Not only was she a fascinating, wonderful professor, but also just a terrific person.”


“When I was an intimidated freshman, Kaori’s matter-of-factness about her transition inspired me—not that she ever said anything, but it just happened in a public way. About five years ago, one of my brother’s children transitioned, so I wrote to Kaori, thanking her for laying the groundwork.

“To quote from her email response, she wrote, ‘I have never been a trans activist. For one, I’m not by nature drawn to be part of a group of any kind. This may seem selfish when it is obvious that I could and should serve as a role model, but my conviction is being what I am without being categorized and labeled.’ (Read her blog post on this topic.)

“That’s how she approached her role at Swarthmore.”


“So, how can one person influence you so much, professionally and personally? In my case, there are two examples: her courses ‘Philadelphia, City + Architecture’ and ‘Rock. Garden. Rock Garden.’ As an architect and a gardener (thanks to Kaori), both influences and occupations are intertwined (thanks to Kaori). Her advice on bonsai—‘it is easy to make trees little, but not little trees’—pretty much sums up her wisdom and delivery. I always want more.”


“Professor Kitao honored me by accepting my proposal for a directed reading in ‘Semiotics and the Visual Arts.’ In turn, she offered a semester of vexingly opaque texts in French.

“She fiercely questioned every philosophical assumption we encountered and graciously, patiently explored them with me. We persevered through that transformative spring of 1975, buoyed both by Professor Kitao’s wry sense of humor and the scent of lilacs wafting through the office windows.

“From Kaori, I gained courage to face cultural, language, and intellectual challenges without hesitating. Four decades and countless world travels later, I remain humbled by her integrity, passion for inquiry, and extraordinary expertise.”

JANE HOOPER MULLINS ’50, former registrar

“I’d known Kaori since she first came to Swarthmore, and she was always very nice. Her wife, Tokiko, was an absolutely exquisite tapestry maker. Regarding her change, Kaori never cared what people thought, but she was careful—she first worked it out with the Social Security Administration so it wouldn’t penalize Tokiko, for example.

“I audited one of Kaori’s Philadelphia architecture classes. She was so superb that people you wouldn’t have thought jumped to enroll if Kaori was teaching. Everything good you’ve ever heard about her is true, and more.”


“Walking through a museum with Kaori is an experience like no other: To see art through her eyes is a gift.

“Recently, she and I toured a Cartier–Bresson exhibit and saw a photo of a man sleeping on a bench. Behind him was a billboard and she said, pointing to the billboard, ‘You know, that’s the dream.’

“This is just one example of Kaori’s fertility of understanding. She has an empathetic imagination that allows you to see into windows that might otherwise be opaque.

“Over the last number of years, I’ve tried to get together with her for a meal or a museum visit when I’m in New York. Every time I am in her company, I am lifted to a higher plane: enlightened, entertained, excited. She’s extraordinarily generous and kind, and as always, an intellectual and artistic titan. I treasure our relationship.

“I’ve been a professor of English at Joliet Junior College for 25 years. Many teachers fall in love with their students, but after the class ends, we often lose contact. What a special privilege—for teachers and for students—to reconnect.

“Seek out professors you remember fondly. Joy awaits!”