Robert Bowles pronounces the word "ka-rah-TAY," with a clipped cadence; with precision. If the rest of the country wants to say "karate," with a long "e" at the end, so be it. The 72-year-old who holds black belts in five martial arts variations isn’t a stickler in teaching his students how to say karate, necessarily; he teaches them the art itself.
It was 10 years ago when Bowles looked back on an instructional career that began in 1967, five years after high school graduation in Phoenix when he first took up the sport under the tutelage of the late Robert Trias, who is credited for bringing the art of karate to the United States in the mid-1940s, after World War II. Ten years ago, he says, he was sure that he had taught more than 10,000 students. Now, of course, there are more.
What cannot be measured is the reach of his influence. How many? How far away? Whom has he touched, whether directly or indirectly, through a series of students who are now the teachers?
Bowles may get some kind of indication of his lasting reach over the weekend of April 29 through May 1, when his International Shuri Ryu Association Seminar holds its 25th anniversary at Grand Wayne Center.
"We have other styles represented, as well," says Bowles, who oversees academies locally, 2720 S. Calhoun St., 2735 E. State Blvd. and in Defiance, Ohio. "We have several high-ranking instructors who come in for this and teach at this event, from California and Arizona, as well as Florida, the Carolinas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Texas.
"We look for about 200 to come in. This is an instructional seminar versus competition, so mostly black belts will be coming into study and further their education in martial arts with these different high-ranking instructors – the masters and grandmasters of karate."
An athlete in high school, Bowles sought out other forms of recreation after graduation, and somebody told him about a karate school.
"I went down and checked it out, tried it and fell in love with it," Bowles says. "That became my passion. Back in that time there were very few karate academies in the country, so I was able to get started at a time when people would call Mr. Trias, who was also the founder of the first American karate organization. They would call for an instructor, and over the years I became an ambassador, so to speak."
These days, Bowles is known worldwide by martial arts aficionados, and is a member of the United States Karate Alliance Hall of Fame.
It was Trias who personally awarded Bowles the Trias International Award, given to the most spirited competitors in the world. Bowles was a member of the first U.S. National Karate Association team that toured Europe, and in 1973 was the first competitor from the U.S. Karate Alliance Grand Nationals to win the triple crown – first place in Kata, Kumite and Weapons.
He estimates he has won more than 300 national and international competitions.
Although he no longer competes, it is the teaching that drives him.
"It’s rewarding to see other people being empowered with good mental attitudes and being healthy. A lot of rewards come from that," he says. "Over the years, I’ve had people start with me when they were 8 years old, and they’re now in their 50s and still training."
Jeff Fabini, 57, is one of those students.
"Bruce Lee was like the big thing when I was young," says Fabini, who is also an instructor at the East State Boulevard studio. "Then all of a sudden I see this karate school on Calhoun Street. I begged my parents, ‘Let me take karate.’ Eventually, they said ‘sure,’ and I’ve been here ever since."
He will also be at the Grand Wayne Center the last weekend in April and the first day in May, once again, to see his teacher; his sensei.
"His work ethic is unbelievable," Fabini says of the man he calls Mr. Bowles. "His attention to detail, there’s nothing lacking. And his focus is phenomenal."
Bowles, still a fit 168 pounds, continues his regimen of breathing, stretching and maintaining his strength "to keep myself strong and keep myself on task so I can help others," he says.
"I intend to go as long as I can. The good Lord blessed me with good health. I’m 72, and I’m still able to keep up with them and train and teach. We never know from one day to the next what life has for us, but I don’t have a stop date in mind."