From the moment that I was introduced to my karate teacher, I was informed to call him “Sensei,” which I was told, meant Teacher. His name was Donald Hugh Nagle, a Corporal in the Marine Corps, at that time. I was twenty-three and a Second Lieutenant, while my “Sensei” around whom my life would orbit for the following forty three years and spiritually beyond, was just nineteen years of age. Over those forty three years of learning, listening to his philosophy on fighting, watching him become a respected and feared Jersey City Detective, who could walk into an auditorium or ballroom and make all of the conversation stop, as people felt his presence and turned to watch him. He never strutted, although he had earned that right, but instead, he seemed to glide across the floor, more like a cheetah than a man.
No matter where we went, or who we met, or who we were with he was always “Sensei.” I had sixteen years of education behind me, was offered scholarships to fifteen different High Schools when I left Grammar School and applied to only one University, St. John’s, without any thought that they would not take me. I graduated four years later, with a degree in Business. I was taught by Dominican nuns, Christian Brothers and Vincentians, as well as lay teachers and Professors. But I had only one “Sensei,” a teacher like none before or after, since at nineteen he was the most confident teacher at his curriculum, that I have ever had. He had not simply learned his Master’s creation, the Art of Isshin-ryu,” he had absorbed it through his pores and into his spirit and soul. He became the embodiment of what Shimabuku Tatsuo, Soke had brought forth to bring karate to a totally different level and this young man, who stood in front of me on that first night, quietly assessing me, with a faint smile on his lips, was a teacher like none I had ever met before that moment. Whatever he saw or what he felt, he accepted me and I had a “Sensei” for life. Although a young man, his leadership over his students and, in fact, strangers who he met fell under his spell and we all knew who was boss, without a moment’s deviation from his discipline. The dojo etiquette that he required was beyond strict. We could be on the deck chatting before class and when he stepped out of the dressing area there was no longer a sound on the deck and without a word from him, we lined up, by rank, on the deck at attention, closed fists in front of our thighs, heads up and eyes straight ahead.
He worked us like sled dogs training for the Ididerad Sled Race and no one dared to slow down or, God help anyone who fell out. Even at the beginning, he chose to pay special attention to what I was doing and, whether or not, I was progressing. He would jokingly kid me during class if I mis-stepped in what I was doing and I realized that he had taken a liking to me, often pulling me aside to show me something that I could do better. As I progressed and became a fighter, that he enjoyed fighting, we grew more familiar, to the point that I could go to his home on a Saturday morning, to get another section of kata down properly and although he would chew me out for disturbing he and his new bride, he always had an hour for me.
In the years to come, when I came over to his dojo, he would always take the time to take me aside for a conversation and tell me more of what he thought of other fighters and Isshinryu. No matter what he taught his students over the decades, he would discover more substance within Isshinryu during the next week. You had to watch him closely to realize that he had added some innovation to his style or another subtle move that he began to use. Whatever he did, there was never anything you could do to stop him, because no one had his speed and awareness. He fought me because I attacked him and threw everything I had available. He admired that, even though he punished me when I attacked him. It brought me into his inner circle, but I never took advantage of his friendship, since I always held him in my heart as “Sensei.”
In decades to come I would hear other students of his, refer to him as Don or Nagle. For me, it was like having someone drag their nails on a blackboard. As his rank progressed over the years and Shimabuku Soke promoted him to the highest of ranks, the sycophants circled him like vultures and he often promoted them because he did not see through their subterfuge in seeking favor and promotion. I listened to them and what I heard was not for my “Sensei’s” betterment, but it was, instead, all about themselves and how they could move forward. They never seemed to contemplate their ability or where they were in their understanding of fighting in Isshinryu, but simply believed they had to be promoted. When he saw me at a tournament he would take me aside, often into another room and discuss Isshinryu with me, as friends, but he was still my “Sensei.” He often told me to call him Don, when we were not on the deck, but I didn’t know a teacher called Don, I knew him as my friend and as my “Sensei.” As a result, until the day he died, I called him “Sensei,” that magic word that became ingrained in me over the decades and the closer we got, as others passed away, I felt it behooved me, even more, to refer to him as my teacher. He had shown me so much of what he knew intrinsically, as though he was born with the knowledge of Isshinryu. His movement was calibrated in segments of a second, he planned nothing, simply reacting to what he realized you were about to do. He was that Cheetah that I mentioned before, simply reacting to a threat. He fought without forethought, but with pure animal instinct. As an undercover officer his Isshinryu was a measure of life and death. That was something that students could not learn, you either had the instinct or you didn’t. He became a Grand Master, “The Living Legend,” but the best compliment that I could give him was to call him “Sensei,” the greatest teacher that ever stepped on a deck. Those who derided him in any way, were no where near the height that he reached on an almost ethereal level. The best of the fighters that I watched or fought over forty seven years, were using the mechanics of their physiology in order to fight and win. They were those few who practiced hard and long applying what they were taught and the more they fought, the more familiar they were with the elements of physical combat. These were the winners. “Sensei” was beyond that, silently waiting for you to get ready to attack him, while seemingly bored, and simply beating you to the punch, the moment you launched your attack. It took me nearly five decades to evolve into an instinctive fighter and yet I was able to beat many opponents with athleticism and speed, using techniques he taught me. I’m sure that he realized that others, like me, were confined to the limits of their mind, body connection and yet he taught me to fight. That means that he taught us to win, despite our selves. That was my “Sensei.”