Honoring Those Who Led The Way

Visiting Steve Armstrong

With Richard Rosenthal and Michael Odell

February 2001

Sensei Steve Armstrong & Richard Rosenthal

For almost the last year and a half, I have had the honor of training with a dear friend Mike Odell. After moving to the Pacific Northwest, and meeting Mike, it became evident that he trained in way that was most familiar. Very hard, very strong, karate should work for self-defense. Mike consistently trained with the mindset, prove it, make it work. Mike, of course learned this from his longtime Sensei, Sensei Steve Armstrong.

Since my introduction to Isshin-ryu in the late 1980's, I have found its history to be most exciting. Always making it a point to meet whomever I could, those that were part of the birth of this great style. I've had the good fortune to meet a number of first generation Tatsuo Shimabuku students. From early in my training, Armstrong Sensei was high on the list of those to meet.

Bond Between Sensei and Student
There is a bond between Sensei and student. One that can't really be explained but is fully appreciated by those who understand it and are a part of it. As we grow and mature and sometimes move on, there is intensity to our training that comes from the fond memories of what we learned during our kyu grades, those impressions of etiquette, respect and how a dojo should be run. As much as I have read, nothing could have done justice a description of the legacy Armstrong Sensei had left. There are many, many of his students scattered around the Puget Sound. I have never heard anything but the utmost respect for him.

I finally had the opportunity to meet him. Mike and I left early on a Sunday morning. Arriving at the ferry to Bremerton with about a half an hour to wait. We had spoken to several karateka who went to visit Sensei Armstrong over the past few years… always mixed reviews, but always love and respect. I knew this was an emotional time for Mike. Not knowing what to expect. There was a look of intensity on Mike's face as we rode the ferry across the Sound. Deep thought was the only was to describe it. After a short ride around Bremerton, we pulled up at Veteran's home where Sensei Armstrong lived.

Sensei Armstrong's Fist
For some time, Sensei has been wheelchair bound. But even so, he is a large man. For a long time, I have heard Mike and others speak of the size of Sensei Armstrong's seiken. No description could do it justice. We joked and took pictures with our seikens next to his. His speech was a little slow, but picked up as we talked. One of the first comments he made was that to this day, he still does all his kata in his head, every day.

Mike and Sensei reminisced a bit. Sensei talked about how he would love to back to the dojo. There was an unbelievable joy in eyes when Mike told him that Sensei Don Wasieliski still kept a group together training every month.

The Mizugami I wear outlines not only the fist but also shows lines of the knuckles within the patch. I brought one as a gift. I was very proud that during time we were there, Sensei kept picking up the patch and looking at it and commenting on it. I take it as a compliment, but he teased me about my Mizugami. Joking with Mike about how changes come about… and that this guy changed the Mizugami. He said it with a smile and thanked me again for it as a gift.

They Can Fight
One thing I've learned out here in the Puget Sound is that Armstrong Sensei's students can fight. My training with Mike has emphasized bunkai in kata and trained our bunkai to work. I asked Sensei if would like to see a kata. He said he would. I asked him what he would like to see. I was most surprised when he said Wansu. I stood up and took a breath. Kiutskei, rei, pause…. Armstrong Sensei rei'd in return. I went through my kata as I have many times before. Controlled, good technique, good power. Mike tells me it looked good. At the end of the kata Mike and Sensei continued to talk and reminisce. Mike told me later that when I did my kata, he saw a look on Sensei's face that was exactly as he remembered him, that there was total concentration watching as I did my kata. That's how he had wanted to remember him.

We said our good-byes. Mike shook his hand and wished him well and left the room. I shook his hand, rei'd, and before I turned to leave, Sensei asked my to take care of Mike. I told him I would and thanked him again for the opportunity to meet and looked forward to meeting again.

My last thought as I left was about Sensei saying he would like to get back to the dojo. I don't think that's possible, but we could bring the dojo to him. He really appreciated the Mizugami and was very intense on his attention to my kata. I left there very proud to have met him and honored to have done so with Mike. ______ Richard Rosenthal

Sensei Steve Armstrong and Michael E. Odell

February 2001

I first met and started training under Armstrong Sensei sometime in mid-1968. The last time I saw him, was eight or nine years ago. Even then, the physical and mental difficulties caused by his pituitary tumor rupture were becoming more evident.

During those eight or nine years I continued to practice Armstrong Isshin ryu almost every day. And through those years I had many teachers, including the opportunity to be taught by Isshin ryu's two senior instructors: Sherman Harrill and A. J. Advincula. But, as Sensei Harrill says: "I look at it like this, you only have one Sensei, but you can have many teachers." Yes, it was about time I visited Armstrong Sensei.

Sunday Morning February 2001
I was apprehensive. What condition might I find Armstrong Sensei--both physically and mentally? Finally, after many months of urging from Richard Rosenthal, Sunday morning February 2001, Richard and I left Seattle. It was an hour's ferry ride across Puget Sound to Washington's Veterans Home and Hospital in Retsil, Washington.

Physically and Mentally
Although Armstrong Sensei does not remember the last ten years or so, he still remembers things that happened prior to the late 1980s. He is confined to a wheelchair, mostly because he can't maintain his balance. His speech is often hesitant as he tries to gain his thoughts. His short term memory is bad, and he is aware of it.

When I first saw him, he was leaving his room and trying to shut his door and operate his wheelchair at the same time. He was wearing his Marine Corp baseball cap. He was much heaver than the last time I saw him. He seemed somewhat confused. I almost lost it. And without Richard at my side, I would have.

But, after the three of us talked awhile, things got better. Sensei was able to collect his thoughts. He kidded us a couple of times--in particular Richard. Later, Richard took off his shoes and offered todo a kata for him. The one Sensei wanted to see was Wansu. Sensei appreciated that. The look on his face wiped away several decades. For just a moment we were both back in time, in another place. I will not forget that moment.

He Has A Dream
Armstrong Sensei has a dream to regain his former physical and mental capabilities--then return to running his old Tacoma dojo. To do so, every night, in his mind, he does all the Isshin ryu katas. Each morning he tries to do one or two sit-ups. All to prepare for a time when he will physically be able to get back to teaching Isshin ryu. Although you and I may think that's not possible, it does not matter. He does not give up. He just keeps at it.

"The poorest person of all is not the person without a cent but the person without a dream."

Does Armstrong Sensei live in an unreal world? Does it matter? How we see his circumstances does not matter. Armstrong Sensei is not looking at his circumstances, he has a dream. He believes in that dream. And because of that he has hope.To those with hope, all things seem possible. That makes America's Isshin ryu Sensei, Steve Harry Armstrong, a rich man.
_____ Michael E.Odell

At The Washington State Veterans Home - Retsil, Washington

Return to Isshin-ryu Page
Isshin-ryu Northwest Okinawa Karate Association ©

Isshin-ryu's American Sensei

1st Generation Student of Tatsuo Shimabuku and
One of America's First Full-time Karate Instructors

____ by Michael E. Odell - January 2004

I didn't know who he was until I found him. After checking out martial artists and martial art schools - there were not that many - I entered Steve Armstrong's Tacoma, Washington dojo. I had no idea who he was and what this would mean to me. I had driven from Olympia, a forty minute drive. During the next several decades I would make that same forty minute drive three or four times a week.

Steve Armstrong opened his first dojo - which may be Washington State's first karate school - in 1960. The school was in his garage. He and eight students trained there. Four years later he moved to his Tacoma dojo, a two-story facility. And there I was.

After all these years I still remember it clearly. It was a rare Pacific Northwest winter but sunny afternoon late January or early February 1968. The dojo was empty except for someone in street clothes standing on a ladder. He was putting a picture on the wall, a wall lined with five or six pictures of Armstrong's blackbelts. The pictures hung above a strange but colorful painting on the wall. It seemed to be a woman, one arm raised and the other lowered, over her head a dragon. Also on the wall, a numbered list of punches and kicks and a warning sign, "No Black Gis."

Years later, Robert Edwards an African-American and one of the top fighters and kata performers to come out of Armstrong's dojo, told me when he first entered the dojo, he thought the sign referred to the black GIs on nearby Fort Lewis military base. But, because of Armstrong's karate reputation, Robert went ahead and asked to join. Of course the sign referred to one's workout Gi not to GI's.

Large mirrors covered the rest of the wall. In the far corner, two 2"by 6" boards sticking out of the floor, behind them, karate weapons and two full sets of kendo gear for full contact sparring. Hanging in the other corner, a heavy bag.

Although the Asian face hanging the picture didn't match the name, I thought this must be Steve Armstrong. Of course it was not. It turned out to be, now long time friend and respected Isshin-ryu Sensei George Shin. Although George was a 4th or 5th Kyu then, he was still a dojo leader and teacher.

After a friendly welcome from George, Steve Armstrong, dressed in jeans and open short-sleeve shirt, came out of the small front office. The first thing I noticed, his huge beefy hands. He was only four or five-year's older then myself. A large man, about six foot four. His greeting gave just a hint of his Oklahoma birth and Texas childhood.

I joined immediately. I think the cost was around $25 per month. Later, my wife and three of our four children joined. That cost I do remember, only $37.50, for all of us. When you achieved Black Belt there was no cost.

Although others might lead warm-up exercises and even teach class, Sensei Armstrong was there, watching. The afternoon children's classes and any advanced classes were usually taught by Armstrong. There were plenty of free times to workout. Classes, however, were structured: basics, kata, sparring. Under Sensei Armstrong, sparring was to be powerful and focused. Control was necessary and strictly enforced. This was before the foam rubber pads that Sensei Armstrong detested and referred to as "Bunny Pads." Sensei Armstrong claimed the pads would lead to weak focus and sloppy techniques - and carelessness. Many of us believe he was right.

Eventually, Sensei Armstrong had to give into the use of the "Bunny Pads" at his tournaments. But he never liked them.

At the dojo, several times a week Sensei Armstrong centered on self defense. He had a list of self-defense techniques from his days of training on Okinawa under Isshin-ryu founder Tatsuo Shimabuku - the techniques basic, effective, and easy to learn and to apply.

Saturday afternoons, those Dans who liked it - I being one of them - put on the kendo gear ("bogu"). It was full contact sparring. It was basic Armstrong Isshin-ryu: kick, punch, grab, pull, take downs, kicks to the groin.

Even with the gear, one had to protect themselves. Only a foul cup protected your groin, so you best do the same. The head gear, with heavy gauge steel wire bars, protected your face, but your vision from the sides was blocked. An unblocked round house kick or ridge hand to the head would have you looking out of one of the head-gear's earholes.

In reality, the gear limited ones techniques to straight forward power. It was difficult to use the mobile, closer, and faster techniques of the katas—techniques one would need to use in a real street confrontation. The gear did, however, give us the chance to let some testosterone fly and the ability to test out our power. And it helped condition the body, as our limbs were exposed to full-power kicks and blows.

Full contact was for higher ranking students only. At Armstrong's dojo you must be 16 years of age to receive your brown belt and 18 your first Dan. There were several students at Armstrong's who were very capable karate-ka but had not reached the necessary age to receive promotion. No matter how good you were on the floor, you waited or went elsewhere for your promotion. Pat Williams, one of Armstrong's best students, yet younger student, kicked all our cans, including mine many times. He knew all the katas and performed them as well as anyone in the dojo. But, Pat had to wait until he was 18 years before receiving his first Dan.

At Armstrong's tournaments, at least in those early days, Sensei Armstrong made any Brown or Black, regardless of age, compete with the adults. This was not popular with the Sensei who - for whatever reason - were promoting even grade school students to blackbelt.

When it came to promotions, there were times when Steve Armstrong would walk onto the dojo floor and hand you a new belt. You were promoted. Regular promotions, however, lead by Sensei Armstrong and several of his Black Belts was the norm. Although the ranking system would change, then it was 6th Kyu - Orange Belt, 5th Kyu - Blue Belt, 4th Kyu- Green Belt, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st Kyu Brown Belts - and of course the coveted Black Belt.

Even before Isshin-ryu, Steve Armstrong held several Black Belts, two in karate and a Nidan in judo. When a youth in Texas he became an accomplished Golden Gloves boxer. Then as a young 16 years old Marine, he started studying karate in Japan. In the mid 1950s he went to Okinawa and met and studied under Isshin-ryu founder Tatsuo Shimabuku, it was then karate took on a meaning that changed his life.

Under Steve Armstrong there was only one boss. He was not always the easiest man to get along with. But, under his firm hand, Isshin-ryu in the Pacific Northwest and many other areas of North America grew into a cohesive karate power. His Isshin-ryu students from the Tacoma dojo proved they could hold their own with any.

Sensei Armstrong traveled back and forth across the country, helping to standardize Isshin-ryu. He was a leader in creating and popularizing open karate tournaments. His tournaments in Washington State drew the big names in karate to help and to compete: Don Nagle, Ed Parker, Don Bohan, and many others.

October 1966, Steve Armstrong held The Tacoma Open, Harold Long and Ed Parker assisted - the Grand Champion, after a tough fight with a local Armstrong Isshin-ryu student, none other than Joe Lewis. Encouraged by the acceptance from both spectators and participants, Sensei Armstrong took a big financial risk. In 1967 he held what was to become the Annual Seattle Open- held at the prestigious Seattle Center. Ed Parker and Chuck Norris were the officials.

During the early years, each Seattle Open would attract several thousand paid spectators and first-class competitors from all over.

Sensei Armstrong was one of America's top point sparring referees - and that is when it happened. September 1977, he was in Texas to meet with Pat Burleson when Sensei Armstrong almost lost his life. He suffered a ruptured pituitary tumor. Within days he became a shell of his former self. When he returned to Tacoma, I did not recongize him. It took more than five years for Sensei Armstrong to come out of the worse of his physical and mental difficulties. But that he did. Although he never regained his former physical abilities, Sensei Armstrong continued to teach and spread Isshin-ryu.

But the end was approaching fast. Then, about, 6 months before he retired and sold the building that housed his Tacoma dojo, he promoted Don Wasielewski to 7th Dan and asked Don to take over his position in the Northwest. At the time Don had his own school in Sumner, Washington and was putting on tournaments, seminars, and advanced classes. Still, this was a big challenge for Don or anyone else in his position. But he promised Sensei Armstrong he would pass on the entire system to his students and any other Isshin-ryu student willing to learn.

And yes, there was the typical jealousy, particularly from those who had been in Isshin-ryu a long time. Don was a well known Isshin-ryu technician who centered his teaching on the learning and execution of Isshin-ryu's katas and the practice of serious paired self defense. On at least one occasion - during those rare after hour bull sessions at Armstrong's dojo - I remember Armstrong Sensei referring to Don as the person he would pick first to be on his side in a real all out fight.

Now, years later, the results of Armstrong Sensei's ruptured pituitary tumor have taken their toll. Today, Armstrong Sensei is in a veteran's home. He does not always remember as well as he should. And he may not answer back, but he appreciates hearing from karate-ka. Please send him a card or note of greetings and encouragement. Show him we remember and we care. ________ Michael E. Odell - January 2004

At The Washington State Veterans Home - Retsil, Washington

Return to Isshin-ryu Page
Isshin-ryu Northwest Okinawa Karate Association ©