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Rockford Karate Club Sensei John Allen takes karate to highest level
Posted By Brandon Reid On May 2, 2012 @ 7:04 am In Local News, News | 3 Comments
By Richard S. Gubbe
Sensei John Allen has taken karate to its highest level — that of a true art form and a labor of love. His students achieve through education and repetition, and with hard work, they learn dedication and discipline and earn loyalties and friendships.
Karate itself has been Americanized, and is now, perhaps, softer in its approach. Degrees are often bought at chain schools where they want to make sure you don’t lose interest. The days of spending hours in a dojo every day have passed for the most part, replaced by busy schedules and work demands.
That’s not the path taken by Allen, founder of the Rockford Karate Club. The karate path for John Allen began 50 years ago in the simplest of ways — he started karate because he was getting beaten up by his best friend in high school.
“A good friend of mine was beating me up in gym class in boxing. He was a little taller than me,” Allen said. After continuing to pummel the young Allen, his friend said, “Isn’t this fun?” “I said, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t hit you once.’ Then, I asked myself, what if it was someone who didn’t like me?” Allen said.
After convincing his mother and grandmother that he wouldn’t hurt anybody, Allen started at a school on Auburn Street that offered “some off-brand of karate.”
The workouts were typical for Korean martial arts — drills, upon drills, upon drills. The same was true for Shotokan styles taught by the Japanese. “That’s how they were — 100 kicks off each leg,” Allen recalled of the warmups. “It was just brutal. Then, we practiced karate.”
Allen, now 65, trained under Master Shojiro Sugiyama in Chicago in a serious atmosphere, old-school karate dojo. “One time, they locked the door — it was scary,” Allen recalled. “That was an experience.”
It was at Sugiyama’s school where Allen met Joe Gonzalez. Gonzalez, 70, started in martial arts in the military, then went on to be a world champion and seventh-degree black belt. He won the Pan American Games competition under the International Traditional Karate Federation in 1983 and operates a studio in Rolling Meadows. “A lot of schools call themselves traditional karate, but they don’t know what that means,” Gonzalez said. “Mr. Allen is a very honest man. And because of his character, you cannot find a better instructor for men, women or children if you want to learn the art of karate.”
Gonzalez believes many styles of karate have gotten soft in testing for rank. When he and Allen were coming up, earning a belt was tough.
“You had to train hard to get a black belt,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes we would flunk, and we would think nothing about it. Now, they don’t think they might flunk. Mr. Allen tries to maintain the tradition of rank. He’s a traditional man.” The two teamed up to teach, have won awards and accomplished much. Both owned schools and watched karate change — just not at their schools.
Allen is the founder and the heart of the Rockford Karate Club, established in 1965. It is Rockford’s oldest and longest-running karate training center with its current location on East State Street. “I started my first school in someone’s basement. We used to move the furniture out,” Allen said. “Then, it was another basement. We also went out to Page Park and trained. Then, someone suggested I get my own place. I started at the YMCA, and then I got my place on Seventh Street.”
Allen has taught for 48 years and instructed more than 10,000 men, women and children. He holds a fifth-degree black belt in the Karate Instructor’s Council of Chicago, a third-degree black belt in jujitsu and a fifth-degree black belt in Shotokan karate, training under the famed Master Hidetaka Nishiyama.
Allen has assisted in organizing many local regional and national karate tournaments in Rockford and Chicago. He has trained three Great Lakes Karate champions, in 1984, 1986 and 1990. He is the only chief instructor for the Japan Karate Association in the Shotokan style in the Rockford area. He has taught karate at local colleges, a high school, community and boys’ clubs. He has taught a women’s self-defense class at Rockford Memorial, SwedishAmerican and Kishwaukee Community hospitals.
Allen developed defensive tactics and programs for law enforcement and correctional officers, working with retired officer Dennis Eagleson. Eagleson met Allen near the beginning of Eagleson’s 29 years on the Rockford Police Department. Allen taught Eagleson karate, and the two formed a friendship and a business bond. “He helped me immensely,” Eagleson said of his outside training.
That’s when they developed training for police officers in self-defense techniques, such as the use of a baton or good handcuffing techniques. “My first lesson plan was on the back of a napkin at a donut shop,” Allen recalled.
The two developed books and other training materials and got classes state certified.
“When we first started this training program, we would meet in his living room and sit there and look at a technique,” Eagleson said. “A lot of it was created in his living room.”
Teaching was a way to supplement income.
“In order to do that, we had to get good at it ourselves,” Eagleson said. “What was satisfying is when officers would come up to us and say, ‘Boy, that was nice. We didn’t have to fight with the individuals.’”
Allen has taught for three of the state’s mobile training units in the northern half of the state. “It’s a way of helping out,” he said. “They didn’t have a good program when they left the academy,” Allen said. “It was a good blend.”
Since 1986, Allen has been a defensive tactics instructor for Mobile Team Training Unit No. 2, a local branch of the Illinois Law Enforcement Board that serves Boone, DeKalb and Winnebago counties. He is also an instructor for Mobile Team Unit No. 1 in Galena, Ill., and Mobile 5 in Mendota, Ill.
He is certified to teach A.S.P. Baton and the Police Straight Baton, Pressure Point. OcC. Spray, Handgun retention and Speed Handcuffing and Defensive Tactics Correctional Defensive Tactics, Cell Extraction, Ground Fight in Knife Defense.
Allen trains private security companies such as the staffs at Rockford Memorial, SwedishAmerican and Kishwaukee hospitals and Custom Protection Service, Rockford Alarm Co., Executive Protection and Investigation, the former Janet Wattles Mental Health Center and Winnebago County Animal Services.
He also is employed by a security company and holds the rank of sergeant in the training division. During the past 26 years, he has trained more than 8,500 officers.
He is an auxiliary deputy with the Boone County Sheriff’s Patrol. He is training at Rockford Memorial Hospital this week. His affiliations with karate organizations, civil groups and law enforcement agencies are too numerous to mention. He first joined the American Amateur Karate Federation in 1972.
Back in the day, a fu manchu and a ponytail
“We always said what a goofy guy he looked like,” Eagleson recalled. “And he looked like he was mad at the world. But I never heard him say an unkind word about anybody. People would say, ‘I could take him.’ Needless to say, it didn’t work. John wasn’t one to mess around with unless you wanted to get hurt. They learned a lot of the times through pain compliance.”
Eagleson, who also has logged 11 years in Winnebago County as a bailiff, has known Allen for 30 years. “John is really easygoing and mild-mannered. I have never seen John get mad,” Eagleson said. “He’s very gracious, conscientious with his children’s class. He never gets upset. He teaches, not yells. His one downfall is he doesn’t build himself up. And yet his black belts have been with him for years and years.”
Gonzalez added: “He never was about being a champion of this or a champion of that. He didn’t teach karate because he wanted to be rich.”
Allen also earned his living as a photographer for The Labor News, Rockford Journal and Lively Times. He also took wedding photos.
Allen often competed at tournaments in Chicago. While he always preaches preparation, Allen manages to forget one basic element in competing at a tournament — his pants. He had to buy new ones in Chicago.
His sensei at the time was the renowned Sugiyama, a historical figure in the annals of Japanese martial arts.
“I never had a male role model for a parent,” Allen admitted. “Sugiyama was a mentor. He gave me karate as a way of life, as a discipline.”
Although Allen is imposing to some and can be an intimidating taskmaster, his focus is one passing on knowledge. He wants his students to learn to avoid confrontation as he has. John Allen never gets attacked out on the street. Some say it’s the energy he projects — that of not being a victim. He says he just blends in.
Denny Stupec, 58, sought out Allen in 1971 to help his brother avoid conflict. “I was just a kid just out of high school, and I lived by Beyer Stadium by a housing project,” Stupec said. “My younger brother was getting roughed up.”
Stupec was referred by a friend to Allen’s school. “I explained to Mr. Allen what was going on with my brother. He said, ‘what about you?’” Stupec said. Stupec rose to a brown belt, then quit, returning 10 years ago for his black belt. Now, he teaches youth and adult classes.
“I like the whole philosophy of the nonprofit structure and staying with traditional methods,” Stupec said. “I never considered going anywhere else. I think his strongest point is fundamentals of Shotokan. He brings up the lower belts and gives them a foundation. We see how well they do in Chicago against the other clubs—stance, the hips, the correct way to do it.”
Allen teaches the Okinawan artform two days a week while other black belts run adult and children classes on other days and nights. The dojo on East State is an old dance studio. Whereas most men of his stature are unapproachable, Allen is more than cordial, more than congenial. “It really is special because of all the other people involved,” Stupec said. “There’s enough of us there to keep this going. Where else could you find something like this? I never met anyone who has a true love of martial arts like he does. He lived it.”
Allen also provides security at a local hotel. One of the few times he’s had to apply his trade came at a hotel. “Someone went for my gun, and I thought he was going to kill me,” Allen recalled. “I drove him into the ground, put him in an arm bar and cuffed him.”
Karate also led Allen down the path of marriage. “That’s how I met my wife,” Allen said. “I trained her brother. She (Mary) was a nurse. I broke a rule I made to never ask a girl out from the club. We went for a cup of coffee, and we ended up going together.”
Allen operates the school on a not-for-profit level. He runs the oldest school in Rockford and he doesn’t advertise. The rates are low: $40 for adults and $30 for children per month.
“I saw what money did for other schools. I didn’t want that to happen to my club,” Allen said. “We all volunteer to teach.”
“He has never been paid a salary by his own Rockford Karate Club. John Allen stands for all the best principals in karate,” said Frank Schier, editor and publisher of The Rock River Times. “I have been lucky enough to be trained by Mr. Allen on and off since 1974. I became one of his black belts in 1986. He always welcomes old students back, and sparkles when new ones arrive. He is great with kids. He shows adults of any age they can, like me.
“Mr. Allen’s character quietly shines as a stellar example of humility, honesty, patience, perseverance, kindness, courage and high, never-yielding standards. His depth of knowledge in martial arts still astounds me. He truly loves Shotokan, teaching and his students. I feel lucky to call him ‘Sensei’ and to share our July 1 birthday. He has made the Rockford Karate Club an institution that has helped so many. Our city should be proud of him. His many students certainly are proud of him and feel honored to have learned from him. When you say ‘John Allen’ to anyone who knows him, you always get a smile. No greater respect exists.”
From the May 2-8, 2012, issue
Article printed from The Rock River Times: http://rockrivertimes.com
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