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Interview with Tom Walker

by Todd Jones

Published Online

We would like to thank Todd Jones for his kind assistance in conducting this interview.

Dr. Tom Walker

Todd Jones: Dr. Walker, please tell us about your life before aikido.

Tom Walker: Well, I like a lot of other people was born! (laughter) My first recollections are, at three-and-a-half years of age, of fighting for my breath because I had bronchial asthma. I was always the runt in grade school, because with my condition, I was much smaller than the other boys. Maybe it was a blessing, because I did become valedictorian of my high school; I was just curious and always wanted to learn.

At Emory University, where I did both my undergraduate work and dental school, I joined the college wrestling team. During that time I went from the very nice weight of 115 pounds, to 234 pounds. After wrestling for five years, I had only lost one fall of a three-fall match in competition. Of course, that doesn’t count team practice, just the matches against other college teams. I firmly believe that because of this background in wrestling that the primary reason I like aikido so much is that it’s “up close” and “in tight” most of the time. I feel very comfortable inside, no matter how big the person is, just ask Andy Demko Sensei (laughter).

How did you come to study aikido?

In 1962, at age twenty-seven, after two years of practicing dentistry in Titusville, Florida, I heard of a man teaching a martial art called aikido. It was said that he could take on three to five attackers and subdue them, that within thirty or forty seconds they would all be put to the ground. This was how I came to meet George Wilson, my first sensei.

Seven years later, a few months after receiving my shodan, he said, “When a big man does aikido (because George was very big and powerful), everybody says, “So what?” But, when a small man like you does aikido (because I was only 5’4” and back down to about 155 pounds), it really is impressive.” That is when he turned over the dojo to me.

So you were studying aikido even before Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei arrived in the US?

Yes, that’s true. Yamada Sensei arrived in 1964.

So please tell us a little bit about George Wilson Sensei. How did he come to learn aikido?

As a security officer at Patrick Air Force Base, George Wilson was fortunate to encounter a man from Japan who thought that he would be good at aikido; so that’s where he got started; I don’t remember the man’s name. Wilson Sensei was so talented at aikido that he came to be known as “the devastator” at the Brevard County Sheriff’s Department. Whenever there was a serious problem, they would call in George; one time he dissuaded fifty Hell’s Angel’s to disperse, single-handedly. He was quite a role model.

Through Wilson Sensei, I was introduced to Yamada Sensei in 1965. Our dojo scraped together $78.00, and believe it or not, arranged for Yamada Sensei to travel, by bus, to teach his first seminar in Florida, right here in Titusville. We couldn’t afford to fly him down.

That’s fascinating! Please tell us about that first seminar. What happened?

Well, as a matter of fact, when he came down from New York on that very first trip, he brought Koichi Tohei Sensei with him. It was the most fascinating thing. They used me as uke because I was the senior student. I would strike as hard as I could and end up just inspecting the mat up close.

How many students were there?

Just eleven or twelve, in the whole school. Wilson Sensei started out with forty-two people the first night, then three weeks later there were only about thirteen people on the mat and he said, “Okay, now we’ve got rid of the chaff. Let’s see what we’ve got left.”

Can you tell us about the growth and history of aikido in Florida? Your dojo was the first in Florida…

It was one of the first, it’s hard to say. Wilson Sensei’s dojo was the first as far as I know. As time progressed, there was a school in Ft. Lauderdale, and I’m not meaning to short anyone, but I’m sure there were schools elsewhere, too. There were not very many dojos, but I’m sure we were the primary school in Florida at that time.

You personally have had a great influence on the growth and development of aikido in Florida. How many other dojo have you helped to establish?

Back in the early days, I helped the Ft. Lauderdale dojo continue to grow as it was already established. Also there were dojos in Tampa, Tallahassee, and one in Gainesville. Those were the primary dojos in the early days in the early 1970’s. Now since then, with the influx of students from the college systems and so forth, I know that I helped establish at least another eighteen dojos in various cities across the United States. I also helped with the first dojo in CuraƧao, Netherlands Antilles, one in Bangkok, Thailand and another in Rostov-On-Don in Russia, maybe twenty-five dojos altogether.

Would you please tell us about the early classes held in Florida?

In the early days, classes were held two or three days per week. Training was harsh and there was no question that we were learning a martial art. Naturally, with George Wilson’s police background, there was an emphasis on practicality and efficiency. He used aikido frequently in his police work, so there was no question about effectiveness when he applied a nikyo, or a sankyo when he did it. That legacy led me into working with police officers as an instructor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Of all the wonderful things that have happened in my aikido career, hearing from police officers, from all over the country, as they tell me their stories about arrest encounters, thanking me for helping save officer’s lives, is undoubtedly the most gratifying aspect for me. It’s a reminder that we have touched people and helped them to protect the public and still be able to go home safely. In fact, whenever I part company with the many police officers in my acquaintance, I always say, “Go home safe tonight. That’s all that really counts.” That’s what I’m about.

That’s a great contribution to our society. What can you tell us about the early seminars in Florida?

The first seminars, between 1969 and 1974 were held in Orlando, Titusville, Cocoa, Melbourne, or Tampa. Then, as schools began to grow and expand, we regularly held seminars in Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami. So we pretty much covered the whole state.

Am I correct that Yamada Sensei began the United States Aikido Federation (USAF) Winter Camp around 1975?

Yes, around 1975 or 1976, and they were always held in Titusville, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Gainesville, or Tampa in the major cities where we had plenty of mat space.

And that’s grown to be a huge success for the USAF.

It sure has.

The USAF also has a successful Summer Camp, when did that begin?

Summer Camps were always up north, which is neat, because you know what it’s like in Florida in the summer. That was where I met the first and second Doshu, Morihiro Saito Sensei, Kisaburo Osawa Sensei, Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei, all the Hombu Shihan that Yamada Sensei has hosted here in the US. That camp was wonderful, too, always with a full week of intensive training.

You’ve hosted quite a few of those famous Sensei at your dojo in Titusville as they were traveling with Yamada Sensei.

Yamada Sensei would somehow always end up in Titusville, two days before he caught the plane out of Orlando, to go back to New York or wherever they were going. As a result, we’ve had Koichi Tohei in Titusville three times, Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei has been here twice, and many others, of course. Yamada and Mitsunari Kanai Sensei have been here many, many times. Because of our location, if Yamada Sensei was hosting a Shihan from Japan for a seminar in Florida, we would always get at least one class in Titusville before they returned to New York. The list is too long to recount them all.

Sensei, please tell us about aikido demonstrations in the early days. Were they different from today?

Not in my opinion. They’re all the same thing, you know, a technical demonstration first, then multiple attack randori. But these were great for attracting attention and helping to build our dojo around the state. We would do them at karate and judo tournaments, high schools or colleges, wherever we could find a place to put mats on the floor.

I know that you’ve had many other martial artists come and train in your school. Did any of this have an influence on your practice? Did you have an influence on them?

Well, I don’t think two people can get together and not influence each other, one way or the other, positive or negative. Yes, I’ve been influenced by all of the other martial arts because, after all, isn’t aikido a culmination of several different martial arts that have been synthesized into the system that we have now? It been amazing to me to hear other martial artists say, “Well, this technique is just like that technique from judo, or karate, or whatever.” In my opinion, knowing aikido makes it easier to learn other martial arts. It’s been an amazing thing to see that we are all really one, even if the techniques aren’t exactly the same from art to art. This kind of sharing has been part of my impetus for keeping the dojo open for as many years as I have.

Let’s talk a moment about the formation of the USAF. Who else was involved in the early days?

Yamada Sensei, Lou Perriello, Frank Doran, Fred Newcomb, Rodney Grantham, “The Prince” Vilitoria, Nelson Nichols, and a lot of other guys would all get together in New York. In 1967 or 1968, we drew up the Constitution and By-Laws, hammering out details until two or three o’clock in the morning.

You had a significant hand in writing the Constitution and By-Laws.

Yes, I helped write them.

You also served as an officer for many years.

Ooh, yes, I was, wasn’t I? (laughter) I served as vice-president and secretary for many years.

How were the details hammered out? Did everyone get along?

Oh no, no, no. I remember that we were almost ready to get up and freestyle with each other! (laughter). That was because the guys from Quebec, Canada, wanted things one way, the New York guys wanted something different… The southern guys were more laid back about it all. There was argument over the meaning of this word or that word. It was a lot of hard work; like I said, we stayed up until two or three o’clock in the morning working out the initial documents. Even after that first draft, we had to have follow-up meetings. That required many of us to change our plane tickets, and stay over an extra night to get something done to help get the Federation established.

So, were the Shihan actively involved in this process?

Oh yes! There would be one or two of them there as advisors. We needed their input as to the way they would like to have it done so that we could structure things as best we could within the parameters of what United States law would permit.

Were there any conflicts among the Shihan during this process?

No, they were pretty harmonious. They let us handle the major things, but they would stand up and say, “No, you can’t do that because it will influence this other thing.” They had minimal input, but they had tremendous influence at the same time. They kind of led by following, if you will. Yamada, Kanai, and Tohei (Akira) Sensei were all actively involved and helpful in getting the Federation established.

Many people ask about the arrival of Mitsugi Saotome Sensei in Florida. What happened?

You had to ask that! Well, Bill McIntyre was in a little restaurant in Tokyo, in the Shinjuku district. He expressed his displeasure with the state of affairs in America and requested at least a third degree black belt to be sent to his dojo in Sarasota to help us out. To which Saotome Sensei said, “I’ll come.” When they found out, Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei and the other USAF Shihan were very upset.

Saotome arrived at a seminar held in Sarasota, Florida about six months later. It was about 10:30 in the morning when Saotome came in wearing a beautiful blue and white striped hakama and haori jacket. He walked out onto the mat and Yamada and Kanai Sensei ignored him, except for asking him to sit down and wait for an introduction. So, after lunch, at about 1:30 or 2:00, Yamada Sensei called a meeting. It just happened to be held in my motel room. All of the Shihan and most of the yudansha were crowded into my little room to be introduced to Saotome Sensei. The formal story is that Yamada Sensei made a little speech and introduced everyone to Saotome Sensei; the truth is that you could have cut the air with a knife. It was very uncomfortable and unpleasant to be there. As we all know today, it did not go well at all. As a result, Saotome formed his own organization and I’m glad it appears to be flourishing. It looks like there was room for him in America after all.

If I recall, your first trip to Japan was in 1970 with Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei.

Yes, a group of us went to Japan with Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei in 1970. That was one heck of a trip! We spent two-and-a-half weeks there. The trip took twenty-six hours, but it felt like forty-five! (laughter) We arrived in Tokyo just after sunset; I was fascinated by the glow of the city lights. During this trip we saw things that normal tourists just wouldn’t get to see. It was utterly fantastic!

Walker being interviewed

The next morning we got to go to the Hombu Dojo, or rather, I got to go to the Hombu the next morning because I misunderstood. Somehow I got from the hotel all the way over to the Hombu dojo by myself. To this day, I don’t know how I did it, because I speak (and spoke) no Japanese. Later, I found out that I was supposed to be there at 11:30, but I thought they said to arrive at 6:30.

Today, it is well known that the 6:30 class is taught by the Doshu; please tell us about your experience. Did you take that class?

I certainly did! Waka Sensei, the current Doshu was assigned to me for some reason, and we worked out together almost the entire period of time. But I did work out with three or four other gentlemen also. After class, everyone went to the showers. Of course there was no hot water in those days. Fortunately, I knew that in advance and had practiced at home, because the other yudansha waited for me to go first! (laughter) After that I think I was accepted as being “okay” because they took me out to breakfast. It was a wonderful trip, utterly fantastic!

You disassociated from the USAF some time ago… What were the best aspects of your affiliation there?

Cohesion, getting to know other aikidoka from around North America and Japan. Being able to meet with each other, work out, and exchange ideas. That was the best part of it.

Why did you leave the USAF?

Regrettably, I had no choice. The abject and unacceptable rudeness of the Shihan toward many of the senior yudansha who had helped them to establish the USAF in the first place simply became intolerable. Many of my senior students had been sensitive to the manner that Yamada Sensei had been treating me, in particular, for years. They felt it set a bad example for all students. I had tolerated it in an effort to be a good deshi. Eventually, I had no choice but to leave for the good of both the USAF and my students.

Since leaving the USAF you have created the Sand Drift Martial Arts Association. Please tell us about that.

It was entirely unintentional. My expectation was that I would have, maybe, three schools. As it turned out, within three months we had fifteen affiliated dojos. Today we have a few more. We teach traditional aikido with an emphasis on the practical, efficient application of classical technique. That doesn’t mean that other ways of practicing aikido are any less valid. This is just our way.

It’s tragic that matters came to such an end. What was your relationship with Yamada Sensei like in the early days?

It couldn’t have been a better situation. Yamada Sensei was gracious, wonderful. It was always great to have him fly down, eventually we could afford to do that. (laughter) I have many fond memories of those days. He relied on me to help run things in Florida and I was happy to do it. I was very comfortable with him then. I couldn’t have had a better friend, I couldn’t have been treated nicer. But again, I did what I was supposed to do and he did what he was supposed to do. That was good, very good.

What about your memories of the other Shihan?

Once I had a blown out knee during a seminar with Kanai Sensei in Titusville. We put a big brace on it and I went back onto the mat, for some reason it was more comfortable to be doing suwariwaza than to be standing. So I began working with a ten or eleven year old kid. Kanai Sensei came over concerned, and said, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” I told him I was working out. He replied, “Get up and go sit down and just watch, you’re hurt.” I told him, “No sir, no way, I’ve spent $3,000 to get you down here to have this seminar, and I’m going to be out on this mat and take it from you, and that’s that!” Kanai Sensei just shook his head and walked away mumbling. That was fun. (laughter)

Let’s see, Chiba Sensei, I’m crazy about him, too. One time I was in San Diego, and Sensei became dissatisfied with the intensity of his uke’s attack. You’re probably surprised to hear that. (laughter) Well, guess who he picked for a replacement? So I just went up there and gave him everything I had. Later he came over and said, “You’re pretty good on the strikes, Dr. Walker.” And I said, “Well Sensei, I know one thing about it. If I don’t give you a good clean rap, or come at you the correct way, then I’m going to hurt myself. It’s not going to be you that hurts me!” I just enjoyed being around him.

At Summer Camp the following year, I did a flower arrangement, and it was a very, very modern style of ikebana, called “nigiri.” Chiba Sensei walked by and grabbed me by the nape of my neck and said, “Beautiful flower arrangement, Dr. Walker.” Then he walked away. A few minutes later he came back and said, “Nigiri, nigiri.” “Yes, sir,” I said. He walked away again. When he came back the third time he said, “Very modern, but still it’s okay.” So I have very pleasant memories of the USAF Shihan. It’s just too bad that I can’t be there because of the unfortunate circumstances.

I remember when Osawa Sensei complimented your ikebana.

Oh yes, the year that Osawa Sensei was guest instructor at Summer Camp. I did a flower arrangement in a very beautiful, very old container, it looked old, too. As Osawa Sensei began the class he looked at the arrangement, and rather than turn around and bow to the rest of us, he got his interpreter and asked, “Who did this?” So everybody looked at me, thinking I was in trouble. Then he came over to me, and through his interpreter said, “I have seen the most beautiful ikebana that Japan has to offer, but I came here and saw something that moved me so much. Look at my eyes.” He actually had tears in his eyes. He told me it was the most beautiful ikebana he had ever seen. I’m sure he exaggerated, but that really made me feel good. And the end of the camp he thanked me for providing the ikebana during the camp, as I would do a different arrangement every day. He thanked me for bringing my ikebana containers and exposing them to the rigors and risks of travel. So that was a pretty dramatic experience for me, because he was also a master of ikebana; it really meant a lot to be appreciated by Osawa Sensei.

As I recall, you were invited to go on that trip in 1970 by Yamada Sensei to attend the first anniversary memorial ceremony commemorating O’Sensei’s passing. Is that correct?

Yes. Only about twenty-five people were in attendance at the memorial ceremony held next door to the Hombu Dojo. I was very proud to be one of those invited. I contributed an ikebana for the ceremony that, as I found out later, happened to be one of O’Sensei’s favorite arrangements. That was quite a surprise.

I’m sure it was quite an exciting excursion. What else happened on that trip that you would like to share?

Well, something interesting did occur on the last day of practice before we returned to the US. As the Doshu was teaching the last technique of our last class we were doing katatetori koshinage in groups. You see, everyone was wearing new keiko gi and hakama that we had bought during the trip; I had acquired a polyester hakama. Don’t laugh, polyester was very fashionable in 1970! Anyway, Rodney Grantham was my uke. As I put him over my right hip, due to the slickness of the fabric, it as well as Rodney, ended up at my feet in a clump. Since we were doing line techniques, I stepped forward, out of my hakama, and just threw the next uke. Later, Waka Sensei told me that his father had never laughed so hard about an incident on the mat! That is a happy memory for me.

That’s truly remarkable! But, you’re not just a master of ikebana, tell us about your bonsai.

Let’s see. I’ve been doing bonsai for about forty-three years now. It was two years after I began bonsai that I started doing ikebana. I became involved with aikido in 1962. Kanai Sensei told me once that in Japan, if a person is serious about their budo training, they must also learn calligraphy, ikebana, or haiku.

And you also write haiku!

Yes, my haiku have even been published in Japan. One time I entered a contest that was open to foreigners and earned ninth place with two of my poems. Would you like to hear them? Of course you would! (laughter)

Crickets in the night
Empty pillow by my side
Loneliness again

That was one of the winners, the other goes like this…

Time, like melting snow
Washes away the old pain
Of our yesterdays

And one of my favorites is…

Dark clouds overhead
Why doesn’t anyone see?
There’s a storm coming

In my opinion, each of these poems apply to both the individual and to mankind.

Thank you for sharing those poems Sensei, they are very beautiful. Moving back to aikido, who do you feel were the most influential guest instructors that visited from Japan?

Koichi Tohei, the first Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Yamaguchi Sensei, and Saito Sensei.

You have taught many seminars both here in the US and abroad, do you have any favorite memories that you would be willing to share with us?

About eleven years ago I was invited to teach a seminar in Iceland, by students who had studied with me in Titusville so I became the first person to teach aikido in Iceland. That was quite memorable, they treated us very well.

I was also invited to accompany Mike Foster on a two-week tour of his dojos all over Germany. Mike Foster is the highest ranked, direct student of Gogen Yamaguchi, the founder of Yoshukai karatedo. Mike was one of America’s top karate competitors back in the late 60’s and early 70’s; for seven years he operated out of my dojo. That was quite a trip because Germans, especially German karateka, are hard to persuade. I can say that because my heritage is German! They sure did soften up after seeing aikido up close and personal, if you get my drift. (laughter)

I know what you mean, but others may not, you have always been an “inside man” in your interpretation and application of aikido technique.

Well, I can do it outside to teach taller people how to execute the techniques, but it ain’t as effective!

I have watched you for years, torture big guys, because they couldn’t get to you, because you were underneath them or inside their reach.

Like a badger.

I’ve heard you complain for years and years about the “young bulls,” that train too hard at seminars, and yet you advocate technical practicality, efficiency, and effectiveness. How do you explain the difference?

That is very simple. Most of the “young bulls” work on other “young bulls” and they’re out there to prove how damn good they are. It’s a sad expression of personal insecurities. They are missing the point. They should be working with the beginners, growing a new crop of talent. It’s good to work hard, but in private practice, not at seminars. I have always believed this.

While we’re on training issues, do you have an opinion regarding who is responsible for uke’s safety during training? Is it uke’s responsibility to take the fall, or is it nage’s responsibility to throw uke at a level that is appropriate to their ability?

Unquestionably it is nage’s responsibility to throw at a level that uke can handle. After all, except for randori, nage knows what the attack is going to be, so where’s the challenge? That’s merely taking advantage of your partner. The only people who do that are very insecure. Anyone who believes differently should try doing aikido during karate kumite or judo shiai. This is how we lose more students than any other, in my opinion.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen so much in judo or karate training because of the competitive element. Do you think that, possibly, that’s part of the problem?

Maybe. There’s always somebody better, even on a given day. Anyone who feels the need to bolster his ego at the expense of a less experienced uke has missed the point of aikido. I don’t care what his rank is. But I cannot emphasize enough that seminars are not the proper venue for getting it out of your system.

What comments, or advice, do you have regarding the future of aikido?

After forty years of study, in my opinion, we’ve got to realize that of all the arts, aikido is the one that constantly changes. Our best practitioners are constantly working to find new forms that will make aikido more of a modern day art, based upon how it was established in its primary forms years ago. We are living in a different world than when these ancient and venerable arts first manifested themselves. Aikido is one that is, will, and must change to remain viable and meaningful to the people practicing it. That’s not to say that we don’t owe a debt of gratitude to Saito Sensei for preserving the founder’s art. It’s not growth if you can’t point to where you came from. Students of the art must ask questions, of their instructors and of themselves. Why does, or doesn’t, a particular technique work? Being able to admit you were wrong and to change and adapt is key to growth and development. The art has got to evolve and to change. It’s only natural. The only constant in the universe is change.

Practice hard. Practice diligently and constantly. The more you practice, the easier it is when you get into real battle.

Thank you Sensei.

It was my pleasure.

Dr. Tom Walker may be contacted at the Sand Drift Aikikai here: