Memories of Steve Armstrong - America's Isshin-ryu Sensei
September 22, 1931, Sensei Armstrong passed away November 15, 2006 at the Washington
State Veterans Home - Retsil, Washington
A karate pioneer who did more than anyone else to spread and standardize Tatsuo Shimabuku's Isshin ryu in North America. Armstrong Sensei was an innovator, business owner, public speaker, and motivator who influenced countless lives.
Sensei Armstrong first met Isshin ryu creator Tatsuo Shimabuku in 1956, Chun Village, Okinawa. At this time Tatsuo Shimabuku was beginning to flesh out what was to be Isshin ryu. At this time Armstrong Sensei was already a Dan in at least one other Japanese Karate style and was a Nidan in judo. Under Shimabuku Sensei he started as a white belt.
On Armstrong Sensei's second tour of duty he again studied under Shimabuku Sensei, this time in the new Agena dojo. It was then, Armstrong Sensei's personal destiny was set.
Steve Armstrong was born in Guymon, Oklahoma and grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. He attended Polytechnic and Fort Worth Technical High Schools. He participated in football, bull riding, and boxing. He would win more than 60 fights out of 72 as an amateur boxer.
At 17, he enlisted the first of three times into the United States Marine Corps, each time receiving an honorable discharge, the last being in 1960. His duty took him to Japan and Korea, and he was involved in the campaigns in Inchon, Seoul, Wonsan-Chosin (Frozen Chosin), South and Central Korea. He was a recruiter, drill instructor (four honor platoons), and Presidential Honor Guard for President Harry Truman.
Following his honorable discharge in1960, Armstrong Sensei worked and lived with his wife Lenore and their three fine sons in Tacoma, Washington.
Early in the 1960s he began his true calling and opened his first dojo—which may be Washington State's first karate school. The school was in his garage. He and eight students trained there. He moved the dojo to several locations. In the mid-1960s he moved to his Tacoma dojo, 54th & South Tacoma Way, a two-story facility he would eventually own.
During the next three decades he was both Sensei and student. He earned an AA degree in 1971 from Ft. Steilacoom CC and continued his further studies at Evergreen State College. He authored several books and publications on Isshinryu Karate, started, produced, directed, and consulted on many of the major Karate tournaments throughout the United States.
In 1988, due to health issues, he closed his dojo. In 1994, his health issues required he reside at Washington States Veterans Home. While there, he worked on his next book, read his bible, visited with family and friends. When physically able, he attended karate tournaments.
Since the mid-1960s, Armstrong Sensei's students have proven their ability in kata, point, semi, and full contact tournaments, on the street, and in the military. Most important, the majority have proven themselves in the public arena as productive citizens. Many owe this to the positive influence on their lives by Steve Armstrong—"America's Sensei"
He will be missed. ____ Michael E. Odell
If you wish to add your memory as a tribute to Armstrong Sensei,
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One Of The First
___ Memories by Soke Robert Hill
Master Armstrong was a friend of mine and Butoukan for many years. I first met Shihan Armstrong in the early 1960s. He knew our Master Nakachi, and we exchanged a few dojo visits with our students. In the 60s, he promoted most of the early tournaments in the Northwest.
Shihan Armstrong was the mentor to several of us just starting our dojos. I frequently went to Shihan Armstrong for the latest in handouts, tournament flyers, class schedules, and tips on school promotion. He always helped me out. He was the one who showed me how to put on a tournament and we co-produced the first Bremerton Open in 1968. It was his tournamentbox and mail list we used. I am happy to say that the Bremerton Open Tournament has continuously been held every year since.
Shihan Armstrong was respected as a quality point-fighting judge. He traveled the country often serving as the finals judge in the top tournaments. His travels lead to the Northwest being a place that was up on the latest in tournament trends and dojo promotion. Shihan shared these with us. Unfortunately many who benefitted from Shihan's travel turned against him and used that same information to undermine Shihan Armstrong and promote themselves at his expense.
Because of Shihan Armstrong's connections around the country, we were fortunate to be exposed to many top fighters and tournament judges such as Don Nagle, Ed Parker, Harold Long, Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, and more I can't remember. He even brought over his Master of Isshin-Ryu, Karate Master Tatsuo Shimabukuro.
Master Armstrong was a great teacher of Isshin-ryu. He would not bend the rules of his style and allow students to do anything that was not true Isshin-ryu. He was strict at tournaments and didn't like judges that were not in gi to officiate. However he was one of the first to bring in others to do seminars for his students. I was invited to join in and attended several of them. He was a true traditional karate instructor. Later some of his students defected to form hybrid styles.
Most karate-ka will remember Shihan Armstrong as a big guy who walked around with a clipboard running things. I remember him as a friend who never failed to answer my questions and treat me with the utmost respect.
______ Soke Robert Hill - Japan American Butokukan Karate Association - Bremerton, Washington
I was honored to be a student of Mr. Armstrong's from about 1981 through 1987 when he had truly started to come alive again following his stroke. I'll never for get the hours of workouts, trips to tournaments, or his Fats Domino tape that was played over and over on the way to Yakima! He was an amazing man and was pivotal in my transition from boyhood to young man. He was my Sensei.
_____ David Grear - Tacoma, WA
Good Guys Wear White
Memories of Steve Armstrong from Sensei Don Roberts
I was fortunate to have met Mr. Armstrong when he came to Knoxville to support Master Wheeler's tournament. Master Wheeler always liked Master Armstrong and had nice things to say about him.
As it tuned out Master Armstrong was on the judging panel for the black belt kata competition. This made me about twice as nervous as normal. For some reason, I was sharp that day, and beat the local favorite Mark Aycock for first place. I had worn a black gi, and was kind of in shock when Master Armstrong awarded me my trophy. He grinned and said, "Don't you know good guys wear white?"
This immediately put me at ease, and allowed me to enjoy the moment. Later, we all went out to eat. Jan and I found ourselves seated next to Master Armstrong. Again I was feeling nervous—I have a bad habit of saying regrettable things in social situations—but again Master Armstrong was so gracious, smiling and telling jokes, that everyone had a great time. This is how I will always remember him.
___ Sensei Don Roberts - Tennessee
Hams and Knuckles
Memories of Steve Armstrong from Sensei Don Wasieliski
In 1973 I joined Mr. Armstrong's organization through a karate school at the University of Puget Sound. The school was run by Mr. Armstrong's students' Herman Lopez, Arden Olson, and Rudy Ademez. They were the instructors and very talented martial artists. I remember how dedicated they were to Mr. Armstrong, and most importantly how highly they thought of him.
My first encounter with Mr. Armstrong's was an event that I have never forgotten. He was huge! His hands were the size of two Easter hams. He had a presence that commanded respect! Mr. Armstrong had a technique of using his thumb knuckles and pressed them simultaneously behind the ear lobes. The first time he did that to me, he actually picked me up off of the ground and held me suspended for a brief moment.
Talk about making an impression! I knew from that point on I would be studying Isshinryu Karate with him for many years. I had an important and significant relationship with this person. He made a difference, and I am so very grateful and blessed to have been a part of his life. I loved and respected Mr. Armstrong very much. I will miss him.
___ Don Wasieliski
When Armstrong Sensei could no longer carry on, he chose Don Wasieliski to run his Northwest organization.
___ Michael E. Odell
Memories of Steve Armstrong from Sensei Danny N. Bartley
My history with master Armstrong began in 1975 when I was a member of the AOKA—Detroit Group—and constant competitor at the AOKA Grand National Tournaments and other meetings of that organization.
I always found Master Armstrong to be "the" symbol of Isshin-ryu. He was always a gentleman and I do not recall any time when he uttered an unkind word towards anyone. I am proud that his signature is on my Yon Dan certificate.
I believe that his memory will be long lasting—as it should be—and I believe that without his influence, Isshin-ryu would not have become what it is today.
___ Danny N. Bartley, Shichi-Dan -Harrisville, MI
A Well-Deserved Kick To The Groin
Memories of Steve Armstrong from John La Liberte
I have several memorable stories about Steve Armstrong from when I was a teenager.
I was a student of Lemont Kersey's of Windsor, Ontario Canada. I received my Black Belt from him and Willie Adams in 1986.
Some time in either the summer 1983 or 1984, I went to an AOKA tournament where Master Armstrong was attending. I had met Master Armstrong four or five times in the past. Of course this was after he had his aneurism and had written Seisan Kata and Seuchin Kata books. He was always a wonderful presenter and a wealth of knowledge of Isshinryu Karate.
For some reason he was officiating the under 18 brown belt Kumite. Back then Master Adams had a criteria of being 18 before you could obtain your black belt. I was one of the first brown belts to fight in my age group. My Opponent and I squared off. Right off the bat I got sucker punched—hard. So hard I was almost knocked unconscious. This was before the days of that wonderful red foam padding
Master Armstrong of course stopped the round for a minute. The other judges wanted to stop the match and disqualify the other brown belt. We were not allowed full contact until adult black belt Kumite . . . ah the good old days
Instead of stopping the fight and kicking the other opponent out of the Kumite, he asked me what I wanted to do. Of course I wanted to continue fighting. After I could see straight, which was about five minutes, we started to fight again.
This time when Master Armstrong started the match, my opponent who thought he had psyched me out got the surprise of his life. He decided to throw a round house kick to my head. I went off on the angle and came straight up with a front kick to his groin. The only problem was that I didn't pull it. I figured turn about is fair game. I guess Master Armstrong felt the same way. He picked my opponent up as he was falling and said: "That will teach you to not obey rules." I went on to get 2nd place.
I will never forget that about Master Armstrong, besides him being a huge Texan with hands that were three times my size and thick as cinder blocks, he taught me a valuable lesson in not giving up as well as never underestimating my opponent.
Many of the techniques and martial arts strategies I was taught were very helpful to me while deployed in Iraq. I was deployed for 18 months along the Syrian and Iranian borders in order to halt insurgence from entering Iraq with personnel and weapons.
I thank my lucky stars that while I was young, I met men like Steve Armstrong.
___ John La Liberte - Detroit, Michigan
40 Years Ago
Memories of Steve Armstrong from Ron Vann
I really appreciate knowing so quickly about Sensei's passing. I saw the E-mail late yesterday afternoon and sat in my office and shed a few tears. Although I was only 10-11 years old when I was at the Tacoma dojo, I have many memories of that time. Sensei was my "Hero". Although it was 40 years ago, I still think of him often. He had such a great impact on my life!
_____ Ron Vann - Hanahan, SC
A Brief MemorableContact
____ Richard Pope
I thought you might appreciate hearing of my family's brief contact with Sensei Armstrong. We just started Isshinryu in the early 1990's and had never even seen a tournament (my dojo was at a park district which did not approve of tournaments for some reason) but had heard of the Grand Nationals in, I believe, Connecticut.
We were going on an RV trip anyway, so we left Chicago for UP Michigan, through Canada, Niagara Falls, and the tournament. I signed up but my sons, aged 8 and 11, were reluctant. They saw this older guy strolling around with a red and white striped obi, and asked me what rank that meant. I did not know, but he certainly looked like a sensei, so I suggested they introduce themselves properly and politely ask him.
He said he was Master Armstrong, explained the obi colors, welcomed them to the tournament, and convinced them to register. They performed well and took first and second place and were thrilled. Later, my division was waiting forever to spar, caught up in the all-too-frequent mixups. Sensei happened to see my boys again and chatted with them, whereupon they mentioned that they were concerned I would not get to spar. Suddenly a booming voice called for 5 judges and a new ring to be opened. Lots of black belts got moving, and two minutes later I was sparring! A real man of action (after my own heart). He later thanked me for raising two fine sons and bringing two fine young karateka to his tournament.
His personal involement with me and my sons really made the vacation for us. Realizing that there was a large Isshinryu organization, we switched to a dojo (under Master Keith Smith) that was active in tournaments. We had lots of great experiences in the years that followed.
I later read several books by Master Armstrong and two of his sayings really impressed me:
"A man's first responsibility to society is to not be a burden to society" and "Never willingly take a blow to the head, even a small one"
Ni-kyu Rick Pope
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