From Sensei To Professor

Documenting a 40-year journey


A young Don Jacob stands with one of his teachers MASTER Tusui Yoshitaka
A young Don Jacob stands with one of his teachers MASTER Tusui Yoshitaka

In 1970 while Trinidad and Tobago was experiencing the Black Power revolution, a martial artist was quietly starting a revolution of his own. At 14A Westbury Lane in Belmont, the 15-year-old Don Jacob opened the Purple Dragon School, a name that is now synonymous with karate in Trinidad and Tobago.

Purple Dragon’s phenomenal achievements between 1970 and 2010 are recorded in 40 Years of Purple Dragon: From Trinidad and Tobago to the World (Port of Spain: Purple Dragon, 2010. pp 121) edited by Laura Dowrich-Phillips and James Fuller. This is a collection of oral testimonies by Hanshi (Grandmaster or Professor) Don Jacob himself; the 3 Purple Dragon Shihans (Senior Teachers); 20 Senseis (Teachers) and instructors; 4 international experts each with over 30 year’s association with Purple Dragon; Daniel and Donnita two of Jacob’s 3 surviving children; and members of his household staff. Dowrich-Phillips and Fuller organize the testimonies into 10 connected sections, a procedure which develops the history of the Purple Dragon as a sequence of overlapping sometimes complementary narratives which cumulatively develop a picture of the Purple Dragon family. Central to this picture is the imposing profile of the patriarch Professor Don Jacob.

Dowrich-Phillips and Fuller generally refrain from editorial comment except for the introductory “From Westbury Lane to the World” and some editorial assistance in some of the accounts. They allow all contributors to bear witness generally in their own voice and this provides the reader with a delightful sense of freshness, candour and variety of style as the eye-witnesses record the events which remain most vividly alive in their memories. Some accounts demonstrate sophisticated literary quality while many others possess that simple stark quality which makes for excellent story-telling.

Don Jacob
Don Jacob

There is no master narrative; the collective memory is reconstituted from multiple perspectives. Long-serving karatekas like Johnny Madrid, Ian Cyrus, Anthony Thompson, Frederick Malik, Albert Andrews and Ludwin Jacob recall the punishing experience of ‘Hell Yard’, as the dojo at Westbury Lane was fondly named. Hell Yard was a partly enclosed space with a rough concrete floor with primitive training equipment; training there was a grueling experience. Madrid et al share memories about the space but each focus is different as each commentator relives memory from his unique perspective. From their accounts–and those supplied by Jacob–one gets a picture of what it meant to be a member of Purple Dragon in the early days. Amazingly, none of these–and other–accounts rates as special qualities the drive and the internal discipline which propelled students to achieve the coveted black belt, to maintain that rank and to advance further. Quite to the contrary, several high-ranking Purple Dragon karatekas confess a lack of self-confidence before discovering the martial arts.

Warriors have taken different paths to Purple Dragon. Shihan Hewitt reveals candidly: “I went to Purple Dragon because I wanted to have a fight with my brother and I though if I knew karate I would be able to beat him.” (15). Sensei Arnold King, now twice USA World Grand Champion, discloses that he needed to revenge himself on a schoolmate for a beating he, then “seriously overweight,” had suffered (77). Sensei Floyd Baptiste confesses that as a teenager he was taunted even by family members for being a “fat boy” and he joined Purple Dragon “Thinking of how I could use some karate moves to get revenge on some of the people that bullied me and at the same time gain some popularity.” (61). Sensei Rosemarie Thomas was so traumatized by a near assault on the unsafe St Augustine campus of UWI that she sought out a karate school and the only one listed was Purple Dragon. And so on.

The true-life drama of Don Jacob is the most compelling narrative of them all. Many respondents testify to the impression made on them of seeing him for the first time, the sheer awesome presence of the man, the sublime quality of his art. None of this manifests in Jacob’s two-part testimony which recounts the lack of self-confidence generated by a childhood characterized by poverty and insecurity. Following the departure of his mother, he and Ruth, his elder by 18 months, were raised by their father who scraped by on subsistence agriculture in south Trinidad and the children had to be helped out by kindly neighbours. (33). Hearing of their predicament, their maternal grandmother took them in but her premature death left Don not yet 9 and Ruth 11, standing at her graveside “holding hands not knowing where we were going, what would happen or who would take care of us” (33). Their mother took them with her to Belmont but Belmont was a rough area and being there was a rude awakening. As Jacob remembers, “Because I was from the country, guys in town picked on me, took advantage, stole things, beat me up.” (33). It was when his nemesis Brokes, 10 years his senior, took from him the single penny that he had that he decided that “enough was enough, I’d better learn to fight.” (33) He started judo with Sensei Clyde Thomas, who was also a prisons officer; Thomas also became his surrogate father. Jacob, who never succumbed to victimhood, proudly declares, “I am from the ghetto but I am not of a ghetto mentality.” His personal philosophy is codified in the dojo kun (statement of philosophy) and in the 8 affirmations of Don-jitsu-ryu, the martial style which Jacob developed, demonstrates and teaches around the world.

Despite this, Jacob’s journey from being victim at age 9 to opening a dojo at age 15 is not perfectly clear to me from his account. I am not sure of how and when he left Thomas and trained with the Japanese karateka Master Toshi Yamashita and with the legendary American jiu jitsuoka, Grand Master Moses Powell. Jacob does recount, however, his years of struggle after he opened his own school: “I did a lot of things just to get by. I bathed dogs at TT$2 each; polished floors on my hands and knees, for TT$2 a floor; collected discarded liquor bottles for the returns money; learned to sew and made the uniforms … selling them at TT$8 each. It was either that or don’t eat.” (35).

Of his practice he says simply: “I trained so hard that anyone who saw me and compared me to the other two martial arts schools in Trinidad would come to me.” (5). Practitioners and others in the outside world who saw him and compared him to other international practitioners also became fans, admirers, supporters and in some cases students. Professor Robert Crosson, Powell’s disciple, tells of his first encounter with Jacob in 1971: “I remember looking at his demonstration and thinking how creative and energetic he was” (23). Crosson was very surprised that “a small (and to me, virtually unknown) country like Trinidad could have a martial artist of such a high caliber.” (23).

Jacob continued winning fans even in the martial arts community. Shihan Johnny Madrid recounts a 1979 tour of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada where Jacob led a team to the first World Jiu Jitsu championship. To quote Madrid: “I saw my teacher using an NBA regulation basketball net to warm up while the rest of us stretched, broke falls, and shadow sparred with one another. Eventually he was kicking the net.” (14). According to Madrid, all the other competitors at the tournament and the officials were fixated by this spectacle. One of the crowd of spectators was Don Warrener whose admiration and support for Jacob are reflected in the title of his tribute, “Brother from a Different Mother.” Jacob picks up the story: “This guy came over to me in amazement and said. ‘Do you realize what you’re doing?’ I didn’t really know what he meant so I just kinda shrugged and said, ‘No, what am I doing?’ He said ‘Most people can’t even reach that with their hands.’  (6).

Bob Mueller, Shihan of Canadian Best Karate, records his first impression of Jacob after hearing him speak at Warrener’s home in Hamilton in 1980: “What I heard was a very Muhammad Ali like man and it seemed to me that he was promoting himself in an excessive way.” (21). The next day, however, he witnessed a demonstration and his feelings underwent a radical change. Mueller, who pens one the more exciting narratives in the book, provides a lively account of Jacob’s practice of don-jitsu-ryu. He first records Jacob’s “trademark big gap-toothed grin and many generous thank-yous”, then the hushed moment when the karatekas assumed their position, and after that the moment of truth:

Master Jacob nodded and [Sensei Carlyle] Thorne attacked viciously in a lunge position. Jacob defended himself fiercely with a quickness and an explosion of power that I had never seen before. Stunned by what I was seeing, my arms uncrossed, falling to my sides, as I leaned forward in my seat. The Master shifted and struck the student with the hardest knife strike I had ever seen. Then he followed his strike with a spin kick to the belt that catapulted Carlyle to the ground some eight or ten feet backwards. For the next 20 minutes, I witnessed hundreds of techniques, slams, take-downs and locks with machine gun like precision. The energy and raw power of this young 25-year-old master was shocking. I had never seen such controlled, explosive ability in my life. He never once repeated a technique as he appeared to deliver the beating of a lifetime to this willing student. Clumps of Carlyle’s curly black, afro hair were floating in air as he was lifted, swept and taken down repeatedly. (21).

Arnold King, who began don-jitsu-ryu in 1989, describes what he saw at the 1989 version of “The Evening of Oriental Arts”, a show which featured Professor Wally Jay, Professor Robert Crosson and Billy Blanks, three of the most celebrated exponents of their art. Jacob’s performance, however, is forever etched in King’s memory:

This one man had several men round him flying through the air left right and center and then tied them down with different locks. I could not believe when I saw him do a handstand roll on one finger. To top if off he placed a watermelon on the belly of one of his trained black belts lying down in front of him while another black belt standing behind [him] held another melon stomach height. Professor then blindfolded himself. I held my breath and wanted to close my eyes but could not. I had to see what would happen. Professor then drew his sword and in two moves without hesitation, cut both watermelons in half leaving his assistants unmarked and unharmed. The crowd went wild. I remember running from one end of the Jean Pierre Sports Complex to the next, screaming (78-79).

Taken together these anecdotes explain the awe in which Jacob’s students held him. Malik says of him: “Back then [the early 1970s], all of us students from the Maracas dojo knew of ‘Master’ Don Jacob but to us he was as unreachable as the Pope was. Not unapproachable, just unreachable beyond our grasp” (39).

But another picture of Jacob the man emerges from the narratives. Crosson admits that Jacob supported him during his battle with prostate cancer, while Sensei Edwin Reid remembers that Jacob gave up his Christmas in helping him track down his stolen car. Other stories tell about Jacob’s fathering qualities. Hewitt relates that when Jacob’s first word to him when he stormed into Purple Dragon seeking fighting skills to beat his brother, Jacob said to him “man you don’t need karate, you need discipline.” (15). Jacob proceeded to sit the 16-year old down and explained that “the fight is not a fight with …family and loved ones but to fight the negative within … and turn it into something positive.” (15). Malik, now a successful attorney in New York, recollects that he was “a kid without enough personal guidance” and Jacob provided this in a forceful manner. Malik remembers that he was a student at the Maracas dojo but one day absented himself from class. Unfortunately for him–or fortunately as it turned out in the long run–Jacob saw him on Maracas Royal Road smoking a cigarette, stopped his car, smacked the cigarette from his lips and hauled him to the dojo. Malik is silent about what happened that day but he learned the fighting arts quickly enough to the point that in a tournament at Queen’s Hall when he was at the comparatively junior grade of orange belt, he ‘called out’ [PNM Minister of Sports 2007-10] Gary Hunt, then a black belt, and knocked back his teeth. Malik tells the sequel to that story in a simple unadorned style:

The following day in Belmont Master Jacob called me out on the floor. I felt great. He said to me that he saw my fight the night before and observed that I liked to call out black belts. He then instructed his four highest-ranking black belts to get on the floor with me and told me to spar with then and call them like I called the other black belt. Needless to say I learned a very important lesson about respect that day (40).

Albert Andrews, however, talks about quite a different experience which testifies to Jacob’s mischievous humour. At age 17 Andrews, the winner of the lightweight division, was competing in St Croix for a grand championship against the heavyweight champion “a guy named Big Charlo”. Andrews describes the scene: “Charlo had on some big boxing gloves and looked mean. I saw Professor walk over to him and say something to Charlo that made him look even meaner. Later I found out that professor had told him that I was going to beat him and he got angry. Professor came back and said to me ‘hit him and run” which is exactly what I did.” (66).

These are some of the qualities that make up the man and the martial artist. Jacob’s defining moment came in 2002 after the murder of Antonio his “prodigiously talented and much-loved” second son who was “so much in his father’s image that he became known as Don Jacob Junior.” (7). It is a cruel and tragic irony that the senseless violence which Purple Dragon was set up to counter and against which it has been waging a silent war for 32 years (up to 2002) should claim one of its most promising prospects, a Sensei at age 20. Jacob bore the tragedy stoically, a dignified figure amidst the grief that he felt. He says of the experience: “Of all the times I’ve had to test my strength, all the lectures I’ve given on motivation, that was the time I had to see if I was really made of all the things I had been telling other people to be, do and feel I had to discipline my disappointment.” (7). Under the most trying circumstances, he proved himself, as Mueller writes, “a warrior, a true samurai.” (22).

Although I am generally impressed with the organization of the narrative, I think, though, that the chronology would have been better served if it had represented Jacob’s progression from Sensei through Master to Professor. When he opened the school he was still Sensei as Cyrus, Madrid and others testify. By the mid-1970s he became Master, a title he held certainly up to 1989 as we learn from King; he assumed the rank of Professor sometime thereafter. Some of the accounts state his belt rank at particular moments and the chronology should reflect this precisely.  (Incidentally, the black belt on page 120 holds a patch reading distinctly “Master Don Jacobs.”)

Also I have the distinct impression that the comprehensive story of Purple Dragon is still to be told. Madrid and Cyrus talk of yin-yang karate as being the system first taught and Cyrus credits the first visit by Professor Moses Powell in 1971 as the transformation of Purple Dragon’s practice to don-jitsu-ryu (31). But other styles were taught at Purple Dragon including nin-jitsu-ryu of which there is no ƒmention in the book. This can be faulted in part to the absence of testimonies from the founding students. In his account, which dates to 1970 and is thus the student account which reaches furthest back in time, Cyrus names the Purple Dragon pioneers: “My experience was shared with other diehards such as Anthony Dillon, Martin Koerts, the late Roger Howai, Kendell Marshall, Neil Lawrence, Jamsheel Baksh, Michael Rock, Anthony Frection, Carlyle Thorne and others who were my seniors in rank such as Horace Inniss, Tobi Brown and Desmond James” (30). There were others like Herbert Norville who is named in Ludwin Jacob’s account. A more comprehensive history of the Purple Dragon should include accounts from as many of these as can be accessed.

In conclusion, then, the Calypso best speaks to, for and about Trinidadians. Given this I coopt the lyrics of GB’s “Look below the Surface” (1998) which invites us to consider that over-achievers had to work very hard at their craft, vocation, invention or profession, and suffer major setbacks and disappointments before prevailing. GB says of these individuals:

They had the stuff great men are made of

It is the stuff you could miss

Unless you look below the surface

40 Years of Purple Dragon allows us to look below the surface of Purple Dragon and see the stuff of which Professor Don Jacob is made. For this we are eternally indebted to Laura Dowrich-Phillips, her assistant editor James Fuller, and Tricia Dukhie who was responsible for the attractive artistic layout of the final product.

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