Isshin-Ryu Karate History of Lee A. Norton

I started training in Isshin-Ryu Karate-do in the small village of Parma, Michigan in October of 1981 under the instruction of Sensei Dewayne Loveless (IIKA, Ni-dan) three days a week. In 1982 two of Sensei Loveless’ senior black belts, Keith Bice and Bryan Fry, opened a dojo at the outskirts of Jackson, Michigan also open three days a week. As the two dojos were not open on the same days of the week this allowed a student to train six days a week if they chose to take advantage of the opportunity. I was one of those students who chose to do so. My promotion to sho-dan was conducted under the watchful eyes of all three instructors after twenty-two months of training.

Eventually job and life changes caused the three instructors to go their separate ways. In 1984 Sensei Bryan Fry, myself and nine other black belts formed the Okinawan Karate-Do Club of Jackson, and for several years I trained exclusively under Sensei Bryan Fry with occasional trips to Knoxville, Tennessee to train with Sensei Allen Wheeler (OKU, Hachi-dan). Sensei Fry was not interested in the sport side of karate. Sensei Fry taught the concept of “sport” was not consistent with the idea of a “martial art.” (Years later he would learn that this same understanding was voiced decades ago by the Shorin-Ryu Sensei Chosin Chibana.) Sensei Fry’s focus was directed towards effective fighting technique and finding multiple applications for each technique. I was his primary uke (partner) during this period. Both of us spent lots of time healing after spirited applications were demonstrated on each other.

In 1985 or 1986 we met Sensei Sherman Harrill (Nana-dan), a direct student of Tatsuo Shimabuku Sensei during 1959-1960, at a ten hour seminar in Parma, Michigan hosted by Sensei Dale Furtwangler. Our karate was changed (for the better) forever. That one seminar demonstrated to us the true potential of Isshin-Ryu. We immediately made adjustments to our techniques and katas to match as closely as we possibly could, the material presented to us by Sensei Sherman Harrill. We chatted for several hours after the seminar about his life in Isshin-Ryu, his experiences while on Okinawa, Japan and his training regiment. We resolved to attend as many of Sensei Harrill’s seminars as we could possibly afford.

About 1989 Sensei Fry moved to Indiana and the dojo started in 1984 was passed to me as I was the senior student (San-dan). I consulted Sensei Wheeler about direction and while he said he’d consider me one of his students, he encouraged me to seek out Sensei Bice and train with him. I did this while continuing to operate the Jackson dojo and training the material I had learned from Sensei Harrill. Sensei Bice eventually promoted me to the rank of fourth-degree black belt (Yon-don) after several months of training.

In 1990 I left Sensei Bice’s dojo because many of his students were uncomfortable with my attendance at their classes. My non-sport focus seemed at odds with their focus so in March or April of 1990 in Champaign, Illinois I asked Sensei Harrill if I could be a direct student of his. He said he needed to watch me a bit before making a decision. Finally, in April of 1993 in Champaign he agreed to accept me as a student and laid out what he expected from me. In 1998 Sensei Harrill promoted me to fifth-degree black belt (go-dan). In the summer of 2002 I was informed that he planned to promote me to the rank of Roku-dan in 2003.

From 1990 to 2002 when Sensei Harrill passed away, I would attend as many as a dozen of his seminars per year, host a seminar in Jackson, Michigan annually and go to his dojo in Carson, Iowa for seven to ten days at a time each year. Through Sensei Harrill I met and trained with many first generation Isshin-Ryu students, including some who had been in the Agena, Okinawa dojo at the same time he was there. Harold Mitchum (UIKA, Ju-dan), Arsenio Advincula, Joe Smith (OKU) and several others. All had things to offer that added to the complexity of Isshin-Ryu.

To this day I continue to operate the Jackson, Michigan dojo training in a manner I hope Sensei Harrill would approve, passing along the material and philosophy he taught to me and working with some of Sensei Harrill’s senior students including Sensei John Kerker and Sensei Mark Radunz, both of whom promoted me to the rank of Roku-dan to honor Sensei Harrill’s wishes.