The Founding of Itten Dojo
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to train in martial arts. My father did some instructing of jujutsu while in the Marine Corps during World War Two, and while the few techniques he showed me when I was very young, along with his obvious respect for the Japanese as tough fighters, may have shaped my interest toward Japanese arts in particular, the interest in martial arts in general has always been there. My first real opportunity to train came in 1975 when I was a freshman in college: Bucknell University required freshmen to take physical education, and in the spring semester I took first boxing and then Shotokan karate. During summer vacation, I enrolled in the Isshinryu Karate Club of Pennsylvania (which was located at that time in Mechanicsburg, and then later in Enola) and continued training.
The next school year, I organized and became president of a karate club on campus, training in Shotokan while at school and in Isshinryu while home on breaks. In addition, I became president of the university’s European-style fencing club and a member of the judo club, so I was training in formal practices six days per week.
Following graduation with a degree in Japanese Studies, I continued with the Isshinryu club (which had by then moved to the Central Branch YMCA in Harrisburg), training under Ralph Lindquist, and tested for shodan in 1983. Eventually, several promotions later, I was chosen to succeed Lindquist Sensei as chief instructor of the club.
During the time I was chief instructor, a number of the black-belts in the dojo became involved with professional kickboxing. Our fighters competed around the east coast, and my wife, Rosanne, and I had the opportunity to serve as trainer and corner crew for an event in Maine that was televised by ESPN. While this was a great deal of fun, it wasn’t budo, and I was forced into the position of resisting the desires of most of the other black-belts to modify the training of the dojo as a whole to become consistent with kickboxing.
A large measure of my resistance was due to my exposure (at a distance) to even more traditional arts, kenjutsu and aikijutsu. In the late 70s and early 80s I had subscribed to a little martial arts journal titled The Bujin, which was published by Fredrick Lovret, a kenjutsu/aikijutsu instructor in San Diego. The magazine was a wonderful publication, and I was delighted when my first article, “Lessons from the Gorin no Sho,” appeared in it in 1981. The Bujin ceased publication in 1982, and I lost track of Lovret Sensei until the appearance of his book, The Way and the Power, in 1985. I so thoroughly studied The Way and the Power and its comprehensive exposition of classical, Japanese strategy, that I based almost a year of karate classes on the principles described in the book. When in 1990 I saw in Black Belt Magazine an announcement for a kenjutsu seminar with Lovret Sensei in Washington, DC, I registered immediately.
The experience was startling. I’d become accustomed to attending seminars and pretty much being able to do whatever was being presented regardless of the art — which also pretty much bored me, on the principle of, “If I can do this, with no experience in the art, how good can it be?” The kenjutsu seminar with Lovret Sensei was my first experience in a very long time of feeling completely out of my depth, overwhelmed and challenged in a way that shook me deeply, to the extent I almost didn’t go back for the second day of the seminar. I did go back, and I was hooked.
Following proper budo etiquette, I asked Lindquist Sensei for his permission to begin training in kenjutsu with the Maryland Budokan, and although he said okay he clearly wasn’t happy with the notion. Over the next two years, I made the mistake of trying to incorporate to the Isshinryu practice elements and principles I was learning in kenjutsu, so I was just as guilty of trying to alter the Isshinryu club as the black-belts who wanted to focus on kick-boxing.
There were increasing instances of conflict, until in October, 1992, the Wolfes and the Starners made the difficult decision to leave the Isshinryu dojo. Within a week, the first practice of the Itten Dojo karate-kai was held on the second floor of the offices of Campbell, Rodoff and Stewart Food Brokers on Trindle Road in Camp Hill. Alan Starner was a vice president in the company and had asked his boss, Mr. Bill Campbell, whether we might use part of the vacant upstairs while we looked for a permanent facility. Mr. Campbell had been a Lindquist karate student in the 60s and was decidedly unhappy with us for leaving the Isshinryu dojo, but he agreed we could use the space for two weeks. Ultimately, we were there for seven years, long after the food brokerage was bought-out by other companies and gone from the building.
While we were all there, Mr. Campbell came to take great pride in the dojo. A tour of the dojo conducted by Mr. Campbell became a mandatory part of the first visit of any potential client to the offices of the food brokerage, and in one case landed the account when it turned out the client was an active karate practitioner (“Any company with its own dojo is exactly who I want to be doing business with…”). Mr. Campbell’s active support made it possible for us to build the enrollment and resources necessary to move into a permanent facility. To this day, and two facilities later, we regard Mr. Campbell as the “patron saint” of our dojo.
During the time we were at the Campbell building, the dojo evolved in significant ways. Kenjutsu and later aikijutsu were added to the class schedule and, eventually, karate was dropped entirely. For a while, we shared our space with the Gypsy Dragon School of Tai Chi, while that group built its enrollment to a point sufficient to permit leasing their own space.
The organization at that time was growing, and to manage the far-flung dojo of the ryu Lovret Sensei decided to purchase a recreational vehicle and make two trips around the country each year, teaching week-long as well as weekend seminars. During this same period, we began publishing articles in a variety of magazines, and undertook monthly publication of Koryu Budo (a quarterly journal) and Koryu Budo Update (a monthly newsletter) for the ryu.
In the fall of 1999, we signed a lease and committed funding for the construction of a new dojo in the Pyramid building in Enola, where the dojo was located until the spring of 2012, when we moved to Mechanicsburg and our current facility.