2011 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
Who knows where life would have led Dennis Dimick MS’74 without his childhood experiences camping, hiking and fishing in the Cascade Mountains? Dennis may not have developed his passion for the natural world. And he may not have gone on to become the executive editor for the environment at National Geographic Magazine.
Then again, thanks to an inquisitive mind early in life, his years growing up on a small farm south of Lake Oswego near Stafford, Oregon, and parents who helped Dennis develop an appreciation for nature, it could just be that he would have found himself becoming an environmental advocate all along.
“At one point, I was going to be a biologist, and at another I was going to be a forest ranger,” Dimick said. “Then by the time I was a freshman in college, I bought a camera and set my pathway toward journalism.”
Dennis attended Oregon State University as an undergraduate, but the next stop on his pathway was the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he went on to earn his graduate degree in agricultural journalism. Dennis was only on campus for a little over a year, but UW made quite an impact on him. “It was a wonderful place to develop independence and independent thinking,” he recalls.
In fact, he thought it was the perfect place for him to be at the time. “Madison perfectly suited me to do what I do today,” he said. “Because it’s one thing to be an agricultural scientist. It’s another thing to be a journalist. But to combine the two disciplines, it essentially becomes science journalism.”
And according to Dennis, the nation needs more people who can convey science to the public and make it understandable because science literacy here is quite low. “I just hope the kind of work I’m doing can shine a light on things people might not otherwise be hearing about … and I hope that there are others who will follow me in this tradition.”
“Madison perfectly suited me to do what I do today … It was a wonderful place to develop independence and independent thinking.”
Readers of National Geographic are surely following him, or at least the stories he helps to tell, using photographs, scientific graphics, research, and any other communications tool at his disposal. As executive editor for the environment at the magazine, Dennis has earned awards and praise for publishing articles on soil degradation, biofuels, Earth’s carbon cycle, sustainable agriculture and many other topics.
“A key part of my work is orchestrating photographic coverage, and figuring out how to make stories visual … because that’s really what our magazine is about,” Dimick said. “People can grasp ideas more easily if you can speak to them visually.”
It’s that challenge —providing perspective and putting complex environmental problems into context — that has also made him a sought-after speaker. His presentation, “Where Energy and Climate Meet,” has earned international acclaim for its focus on the nexus between climate change, our energy choices, and a sustainable economy.
In September 2004, Dennis oversaw a magazine project on global climate change called Signs From Earth and received a citation from the Overseas Press Club for best environmental coverage.
And even though Dennis has to sit through meeting upon meeting before any story ever hits the magazine rack, he feels it’s definitely worth it.
“Either you make change or it’s done to you,” he said firmly. “I’m in the business of trying to make change.”
Along with his work on the magazine, Dennis has been picture editor for a dozen National Geographic books, and has served on the faculty of the Missouri Photo Workshop, sponsored by the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Before joining National Geographic in 1980, he also worked at newspapers in Oregon and Washington, and was an editor at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.
So for the man who, as a child, who cut, raked and baled hay on fields around his family farm, has working for one of the most prestigious magazines in the world been a dream come true?
“Most of the projects I’ve worked on for the last 20 years have been projects I’ve come up with the idea for: agriculture, food, the environment, public lands in the United States, energy, climate change, water. They’re all really interesting. They’re all relevant to our life and how we’re going to be able to sustain ourselves going forward,” Dimick said. “If that’s a dream job … then, yeah. It’s a bit like being paid to go to graduate school.”
My year as a University of Wisconsin graduate student ranks among the best of my life. In the fall of 1973 I arrived in Madison as a new master’s candidate in the Department of Agricultural Journalism (now Life Sciences Communication), and for the first time was living far away from Oregon and the farm where I grew up. Immediately a big welcome mat came out, and Larry Meiller, Claron Burnett, Lloyd Bostian and all the wonderful people at UW made me feel right at home.
This was a year of wonder, self-reliance, and discovery. Who knew I would be able to spend seven wonderful months as a radio producer, when before my arrival in Madison I’d never even touched a microphone or tape recorder? Thanks to encouragement and inspiration by my friend and professor, Larry Meiller, all things were and remain possible. Larry kindly gave me the chance to try something completely new and fascinating: producing and hosting a daily half-hour farm radio program on WHA.
My time in Madison gave me confidence to believe in myself: to set my own goals, craft my own paths, and stick to them. After (reluctantly) leaving Madison in August of 1974 with my master’s degree, I began a six-year career in Oregon, Washington, and Kentucky as a newspaper journalist: farm writer, sports editor, schools reporter, staff photographer, picture and layout editor. In 1980 I was invited to join the National Geographic Society staff, where they still let me work after more than 30 years.
I have always kept close at heart my time here as a Badger. I daily call upon the lessons of self-reliance I learned here: The future is whatever you make of it, either you make change or change is done to you. To make change, dream up an idea, set a goal, craft a path, get to work, and above all, persevere and be patient. In late 2008 I was able to publish a story in National Geographic on soil conservation after nine years of work. Building good soil and stories about it takes time, and requires patience.
Every day now I’m involved in assessing and decoding a range of complex issues and ideas like climate change, energy systems, food and agriculture, water supply, population dynamics, and sustainability. My goal is to produce accurate stories that make these concepts clear, simple, elegant and accessible for lay audiences. As the world becomes more complex and intertwined, there is great need for explainers, those who can unravel these often murky issues and help people understand why matter.
It has been a wonderful career. My desire to try and bridge the communications gap between science, ideas, and public understanding was planted and nurtured right here in Madison. My time here was critical to my success, and I am extremely grateful to the University of Wisconsin and my faculty and friends in Life Science Communications for the chance to grow in skill and confidence during my year in Madison.