My first experience with a regular karate school was with Tracy’s Karate Studios – San Diego in 1976. I had studied some Okinawan Karate as well as Lima Lama from the base karate club. I knew the basics but did not know how to put kicks and punches together to mount a successful attack. Still, I thought I knew everything but was determined to know more. I saw the Tracy’s Karate commercials that aired during the Kung Fu series playing on TV at the time and decided to give Tracy’s a try.
I called up Tracy’s and spoke to Dick Willett about my interests and he told me to come on down to take the first five lessons – to see if I liked it before I signed up! I went for the initial lessons and quickly was impressed by teaching methods. As I said. I already knew how to kick and punch but I had a problem connecting with my opponents. Dick told me about critical distance and initial movement he had learned from his tournament days and his associations with Joe Louis (the undisputed heavy weight full contact karate champion of the late 60’s through early 70’s) and I was properly impressed! Here is a picture of Dick Willett as I remember him after I started taking lessons.
Picture from http://members.tripod.com/hungahungas/akksandiego.htm. Pictured are Todd McElhinney, Irvin Hoffman, Joe Lewis, Dick Willett, David Hays, & Frank Mafnas (left to right).
Mr. Willett was an athlete and surfer in the early 1960’s that enjoyed sports. He started taking karate from the Tracy’s Karate schools in San Mateo and San Jose under Ray Klingenberg and Al Tracy. He worked for the probation department while studying karate and received his black belt in 1968. I remember his stories of how karate came in handy dealing with wayward charges.
As he loved competition, Dick had a successful tournament career in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. He was fighting in the same era as Joe Lewis, Bill “Super Foot” Wallace, Ray Klingenberg, Ron Marchini, Mike Stone, and Howard Jackson. He came out of retirement in the 1980’s to win a series of Master Black Belt tournements!
Dick left Northern California to open his first karate studio in San Diego that is still operated by one of his students, Todd McElhinney. He continued surfing and sailing and became a vice president for the Tracy’s organization. He formed a partnership with one of his senior black belts Mike Robert, and created a corporation called Kenpo Services that owned eight schools locally in San Diego County.
Due to their success with Kenpo Services, they were selected to oversee the entire Tracy’s organization, to maintain the high standards and provide training, support, seminars, and business management for the Tracy’s franchisees nation wide. Dick’s partner Mike Roberts was selected as Tracy’s national trainer. This was the heyday of karate instruction as the Tracy’s organization had over 100 schools nation wide. When I started taking lessons, Tracy’s was the largest association of self defense/karate schools in the world! Dick’s organization purchased airtime during the TV series, “Kung Fu” where Mike and an opponent demonstrated karate techniques.
Mr Willett created the American Kenpo Karate Association with Joe Lewis for a couple of reasons, first to further incorporate Mr. Lewis’s progressive American Freestyle ideas of initial movement, critical distance, and angular attacks. Secondarily Dick wanted to unify the United Karate Federation under an organization or re-unify if you will, as Orned “Chicken” Gabrial was one of Dick’s top students that went on to start his own highly successful organization. The picture below shows Chicken’s affiliated school owners (Rey and Pete) as well as his most famous student – Steve Anderson who dominated karate tournaments for 10 years!
Picture from http://members.tripod.com/hungahungas/akksandiego.htm. Orned “Chicken” Gabral, Rey Leal, Steve “Nasty” Anderson, and Pete “Sweet Pete” Salas (left to right).
Mr. Willett received his 9th Degree Black Belt from Al Tracy in early 2000’s and later received his 10th Degree black belt from the American Kenpo Karate Association.
Picture from http://members.tripod.com/hungahungas/wild_bunch.htm. Scott Richardson, John Zimmer, Richard “Dick” Willett, Orned “Chicken” Gabrial, Jeff Dixon, John “Big T” Turnage, (lower) Mike Roberts, & Marcus Hawkins.
When I was coming up in the ranks I had some of the best fighters in the country to train with because Dick’s influence seemed to attract great talent! Below is a picture (one of many because there were too many of us to be in the same place at the same time) of the wild bunch!
Picture from http://members.tripod.com/hungahungas/wild_bunch.htm.
Quoting the biography I received from Mike Roberts:
As a great instructor for over 3 decades, Dick was personally responsible for developing a long lineage of outstanding Black Belts that proved to be consistent winners at numerous tournaments and kick boxing competitions. Some of the most notable competitors included Orned “Chicken” Gabriel, Terry Crook,
Mick Leone, Leonard Broach, Larry McCraw, Lap Napoleon, Frank Mafnus, Joyce Liebert (now Mickley), Todd McElhinney, Dave Hays, John West, and John Zimmer. It should also be mentioned that the UKF fighters also trained and shared skills with AKKA and included such notable fighters as Steve “Nasty” Anderson, Robert “Foots” Summler, Ray Leal, and John “Big T” Turnage.
His teams were successful in major Black Belt competitions throughout the nation, including the Internationals, the Northern vs Southern California Championships and most notable the United States Open Karate Championships along with the “
Battle of the Superstars”.
* the “
Battle of the Superstars” team: Orned Gabriel, Steve Anderson, Terry Crook, Larry McCraw, and Steve Fisher.
Mr. Willett’s additional accomplishments include:
Selected Tracy’s Instructor of the Year (Southern California)
Awarded 10th degree Black Belt
His fighters ranked in Karate Illustrated Magazine
An Honored Master at the 2001 Gathering of Eagles – Las Vegas
Honored by Joe Lewis and inducted into his elite Black Belt Honor Roll
Inducted as a Charter member into the Kenpo Hall of Fame, 2007 – Chicago
Grand Master Richard “Dick” Willett
Picture from: http://www.amkenpokarateassociation.com/Board_Memebrs.htm.
I can remember lots of sage advice Dick has given me over the years such as, “the proof is in the pudding,” and “you cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” I feel really lucky to have made the decision to call the karate studio 31 years ago as I have made a life long friend that has helped shape my life into all I have accomplished. I hope any potential karate students reading this post will consider the intangible benefits that can come from learning to defend ones self, especially if the instructor is of the same caliber as I have found in Dick Willett!
I would like to acknoledge the assistance I obtained for this story from Mike Roberts, Dave Hays, and Rey Leo.