My Sojourn in the BYU Karate Club

When I was a teenager, a bunch of my friends went together to the Egyptian Theater in DeKalb, Illinois, where I grew up, to see a new movie that had just come out, called Enter the Dragon. I had never heard of kung fu before and had essentially no exposure to the martial arts at that time. My friends insisted on sitting on the first row, and in this case it was a good choice. Bruce Lee in all his catlike glory seemed to be two stories tall. I had never seen anything like this and was completely mesmerized by it.

So, when I came to BYU as a freshman, I signed up for a karate class, which met on Saturdays. The instructor was also a member of the BYU Shotokan Karate Club, and he encouraged me to join, which I did. The BYU Club was the second-oldest U.S. university Shotokan club, founded by the great Tsutomu Ohshima. One of the benefits was that as long as I attended club workouts each Tuesday and Thursday night (and sometimes Saturday mornings), I didn’t have to attend the class itself on Saturday afternoons.

I found the club quite fascinating; it was for me a small exposure to an entirely different culture. Basically, we would meet in the wrestling room of the Smith Fieldhouse, then go for a mile run around the track (wearing the gi and barefoot). When everyone had returned, we had a session of stretching exercises and calisthenics. We did our pushups with our fists (makes sense); I still do them that way to this day.

Once those preliminaries were out of the way, there were essentially three areas of focus for each workout. First were the basic forms of different punches, kicks and blocks. We would practice these, doing ten at a time, counting them off in Japanese (I quickly learned the names of the numbers). Second were kata, which were ritualized, almost dance-like forms. And third was kumite, or sparring. Some of the sparring was more ritual in nature, and some was more free.

I participated in the club for about a year and a half: my freshman year of college, and the first semester after my mission. At that point I got engaged and had to focus more on my schoolwork, and so I drifted away from the club. Also, I have to admit that I sort of got tired of walking around campus with my arms always bruised. The sparring was theoretically noncontact, but that didn’t go for the blocks, which were real. So I’m sure people were wondering who had been beating the crap out of my arms all the time.

As I say, the punches and kicks in sparring were supposed to be noncontact, but things didn’t always work out that way. One time I was sparring with a big and strong policeman, and he misjudged his punch and caught me right in the sternum. I couldn’t move for like three minutes. But in a way those mistakes were good, because I got a sense for what it was like to absorb that punch, and it gave me confidence that, yup, it really works. There were also a few girls in the club: brown belts who could really kick ass. I was very impressed with their abilities.

The leaders of the club at that time were the House brothers: Tom, Fred and Gary. I didn’t see much of Gary, as he usually had to work in the evenings. Tom was the oldest and was the leader. Fred was an incredibly talented fighter; he was the best fighter I have ever personally encountered. Even though I was bigger than he was, it didn’t matter; whenever I sparred with him, he could easily put me in a position where I couldn’t even reach him. I frankly idolized him.

Fred worked as a corrections officer at the prison, and it was a good job for him. He could walk among the convicts with total confidence, and everyone knew not to bother him.

As I pursued school and turned my attention to other things, I didn’t really think much of my experience with the club very often. It was a great learning experience, which I appreciated, but my focus was on my studies and then my new career as an attorney.

It was with great shock that I learned that Fred House had been shot by Adam Swapp and Timothy Singer on January 28, 1988, as part of the 13-day standoff known as the “Siege at Marion.” Swapp had blown up an LDS Church about 45 miles east of SLC. Fred was on the scene as a dog handler, and Singer and Swapp shot and killed him. I could scarcely believe it was possible; this man had seemed so utterly invincible, as though nothing could harm him. But he was dead, leaving a grieving family behind. (Someone made a movie about the standoff, called “In the Line of Duty,” starring Dennis Franz. Ed Begley, Jr. played Fred, which was incredible miscasting.)

I think the Karate Club still exists at BYU, even though it has been 27 years since I participated there as a young student. I count the experience as an important part of my university education.


  1. I don’t know about the club, but as of 10 years ago the classes were still being offered. I took that class when it was held at 7:30AM and I don’t remember much. Although I do remember that the teacher was this tiny woman (maybe 5’1) who really packed a punch!

  2. I found a webpage for the Shotokan Karate Club here.

  3. I once spoke with a martial arts expert who had worked for the LAPD. He told me he had specifically worked in fighting against drug dealers and gangs.

    I asked him with his martial arts training how he would handle interacting with someone who had a gun.

    He said “I’d run.”

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Good advice, danithew. (In Fred’s case, he was basically sniped with a rifle from a distance. I don’t know that he ever saw it coming.)

  5. A few DU articles on the club:

    Raising the Bar

    Karate club arms students

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the links, Justin. I’m glad to see the club is still going strong after all of these years.

  7. Kevin, sorry if I sounded like I was being critical of the victim. That wasn’t my intention at all. Since you dealt with martial arts, law enforcement and a gun in the same post, I just remembered the conversation. That’s all.

    After reading about a shooting that took place here in NYC recently, I couldn’t help but ponder how immediately a vital and meaningful life can end. It’s really a terribly sad and shocking reality to deal with.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    No problem, danithew, I was just clarifying the situation as I understand it.

    Did anyone else see the series the Human Weapon on the History Channel? Fascinating stuff.

  9. So, in the early 70s you were a martial arts enthusiast with an afro. Like Black Belt Jones.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, pretty much. (g)

  11. Ahh, I worked out with that club in ’73-74 and then in other years.

    I remember Fred’s encounter with Glen K, and how an old Hawaiian man swatted Fred around like a child. Or how Fred told one of the BYU Hawaii administrators going to law school that Sam A. was mistaken, Sam had really not gotten the black belt he said he had because there was no Shotokan karate in Hawaii when Sam thought he was training. There was no guile in Fred.

    On the other hand, he did show courage to stand up and urge the dog forward, and it was sad that a bullet came through a seam in his bullet proof clothing and killed him. For all of his interactions with Ken Higa and others, for the good and the bad in his life, that was a sadness for he and for Al Walls, his best friend.

    We are diminished when anyone of us is lost.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Stephen M, your time there predates my own. I was there 76-77 and the first part of 80.

  13. We did our pushups with our fists (makes sense); I still do them that way to this day.

    You the man, Kevin.

    I like the idea that a physical discipline is part of one’s education. For me, boxing played a similar role.

  14. Does eating count as a physical discipline – at least if one is very good at it and does it in a disciplined manner?

    Seriously, I was an extremely odd student – married as a 22-year-old freshman at a college that had 3 married undergraduates total the year I graduated (one of whom was a 68-year-old grandfather who was finishing the degree he had failed to get due to war service). I also was the only undergrad who worked full-time and had children during college. I truly wouldn’t change my education in any way, but I would have liked to have made a connection with a club during those years. That’s about the only thing I “envy” about the other students’ experiences.

    OTOH, I’m pretty sure I am the only one in my graduating class who has been married to the same woman for over 20 years and has 6 children. Given the choice of the two, I guess there is not envy after all.

  15. I studied Kenpo Karate for a couple of my high school years, c.1966. It was fun to read this post and remember those days.

    Some of the Asian mode of thinking has stayed with me, especially so from the bit of Aikido we learned. That involves the redirection of the opponent’s momentum to defeat him, without much contact. It is little more than the power of suggestion, but it is powerful.

    I am certain that that approach affects my views of religion, spirituality and personal relations to this day, although I can’t necessarily explain how. It is subtle.

    One little example comes to mind that might seem silly to anyone else. Years ago, when I would go shopping with one of our young boys, I found the best way to keep him from running amok was to ask him to hold my finger. When I tried to hold his hand, he would pull away. It created a contest – an equal counterforce. When he would hold my finger, it created a voluntary cooperation. Knowing that he could let go, I was more aware of where he might want to go and would accommodate it to some degree. Knowing that he could let go, he was less inclined to pull away. For some reason, I was able to have much more influence than by grabbing his hand. As I remember, it was amazingly effective. I still take some satisfaction in having discovered this little trick.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Clair, did you by chance have any interaction with Ed Parker, whom I understand was Mormon?

  17. It’s cool to hear from someone who was in the shotokan club back several years ago! I’m actually a member of it now–well, sort of, since I’m technically a member of Budoshin jujitsu, but it’s basically run as a part of the shotokan club. It’s very different, a little bit less strict than Shotokan, but we do have some good workouts and practice sessions. It’s taught right now by Paul Sucher.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    onelowerlight, yeah, looking at the articles that were posted, it appears that the club is now a little less strictly traditional, which I think is a good thing. A lot of martial arts are moving in a more eclectic direction.

  19. You might have known my teacher. He was there around the same time. Same first name and last initial as you. I have heard many stories about the House brothers.

  20. Sarah Taber says:

    Heck yeah! I was freakin’ president of that club back in ’02! (The reason for this was that unlike the rest of the club members that winter semester, I was staying in Provo for spring term. This was not a skill-related appointment.) I’d done lots of shorei-ryu in middle school but it was far enough back that it didn’t help too much in college.

    Paul had us doing pushups on our fingertips for digit-strengthening purposes- he said if we could get up to 30 fingertip pushups we could straight-finger jab someone in the neck and [censored: gross but effective in dark parking lots]. I think I got up to about 12 once, those sons-a-guns hurt.

    We also learned a lot of cool throws. Unfortunately most of us were too amateur to know how to practice on each other without actually causing injury- a lot of the throws were the grab-the-wrist-and-yank-counterclockwise-until-they-want-to-run-away variety, which leads to repetitive stress injuries after your buddies try them on you for a couple months. I’d totally do it all over again because throws are so cool- knowing how to redirect people coming at you does wonders for your mental health- but my right wrist is jacked to where bowling is impossible. Which is really a gift in itself since I don’t like bowling. : )

  21. Ed Parker actually was at BYU a long time ago and then came to Utah Valley about the time of the events of this post. Of all things he spent a lot of his time with the old Hawaiian gent mentioned above and some with Bobby Lawrence. I’ve wondered what happened to Bobby since I had my shoulder separation sparing with him. Not the best end to the summer before my last year of law school, but just one of those things that can happen in a 5:30 a.m. workout.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Awesome, Sarah! I was hoping a more recent participant would show up here.

  23. Ed Parker …

    I never met Ed Parker, but he was a hero among Karate students at the time. I think he founded or further the Kenpo style that we studied. My instructor (my cousin) was from California and may have studied with him.

  24. Fred House was my karate teacher when I was in 7th and 8th Grades in 1983 – 85. Being just a kid, I didn’t have a personal relationship like you did, but he was kind to everyone in the class regardless of their reasons for being there and their age, skill level, physical ability, etc. That was a good lesson to remember all these years later.

  25. I always enjoyed breaking boards. I was strong and could hit hard, plus they did not hit back. When I was taking martial arts I always walked around with a black eye or broken foot.

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