Interview with Art Bourgeau, Part II: History of the Philadelphia Judo Club and J.B. Gross

Beginning his judo training under the famed Takahiko Ishikawa at the Ishikawa Judo Club in 1968, Art Bourgeau soon inherited the club in 1983, being the head instructor for twenty-five years, under the Philadelphia Judo Club namesake. Today, Art discusses the history of one of the longest judo clubs in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Judo Club, and his friendship with eighth head instructor J.B. Gross. This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

 

The Philadelphia Judo Club

MAYTT: Before we go any further, could you tell more about the club’s early history, before Ishikawa?

art-bourgeau
Art Bourgeau. Source: Osagame.com

AB: The relationship between Ishikawa and the Philadelphia Judo Club is a curious one that deserves some explanation. The Philadelphia Judo Club is the oldest martial arts club in Philadelphia. It was begun in 1949, by a man named Jack Feinsinger, and was originally called ‘The Philadelphia Ju Jitsu Club’. Its first location was at the Jewish Y at Broad and Pine Sts. Jack was knowledgeable in Japanese Ju Jitsu, what particular style I could not say, since at one time there were over 900 different styles of Japanese Ju Jitsu, but whatever style it was it included basic judo techniques.

Japanese Ju Jitsu at that time had no belt ranks. The idea of the gi and belt ranks is credited to Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. It is said to be something he brought back from watching school matches (soccer or rugby) during his years as a teacher in England.

So, to get belts and advance, the students of the Philadelphia Ju Jitsu Club would occasionally go to New York and compete in judo tournaments as students for (I believe it was) Mr. Yoshihiro Uchida’s club. In this way three students from the Philadelphia Ju Jitsu Club came to ultimately be awarded black belts in judo and were the first three students in any martial art to earn a black belt in Philadelphia. They were: Al Wallace, Helen Foos, and Jerry Goldman. Sadly, all three are dead now. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Al Wallace, but I did know Helen Foos and Jerry Goldman (Jerry especially). My knowledge of the early days of the club came from conversations with them.

I believe there have now been ten head instructors of the Philadelphia Judo Club, but I’m not one hundred percent sure. After a few years Jack Feinsinger discovered he could not make a living teaching Ju Jitsu, so he passed the club to another instructor, who may have passed the club to a third instructor, Jerry Goldman’s memory was vague on this point, so I only count the missing instructors as one.

The next or third head instructor everyone agrees was Dr. Eichi Kowai, ultimately kudan, a pathologist from Hahneman, who in his later years became a racehorse owner. At the time he took over as head instructor he was a yodan or fourth dan in judo. He moved the club from the Jewish Y to the Chinatown Y, and changed its name to The Philadelphia Judo Club. That was in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Enter Ishikawa, circa 1960. Several years earlier Ishikawa had left Japan and had become the head judo instructor in Batista’s Cuba. When Castro took over, he was ordered to leave the country. General of the Air Force Curtis LeMay helped him come to Philadelphia where he was sponsored by Helen Foos, one of the three original black belts, who was a main line woman with the financial resources to do such a thing. When he arrived with his tremendous knowledge and credentials, he automatically became the fourth head instructor for the now Philadelphia Judo Club. As a result, Dr. Kowai had to take a backseat in what had been his own club. The die was cast between them. They were never friends. Enemies, yes. Friends, no.

This may have played a role when a year or so later Helen Foos bankrolled the formation of a separate Ishikawa Judo Club, whose initial location was at Broad and Race Sts, and Ishikawa was no longer ever associated with the Philadelphia Judo Club.

MAYTT: You bring up Helen Foos, who became a major figure in Ishikawa’s legacy. Could you tell me more about her?

AB: By the time Ishikawa arrived in Philadelphia, Helen Foos, by now she was a sandan, had also started her own judo club. Main Line Judo, I think it was called, and still exists and thrives today with Tom Blair, rokudan and one of her original students as head instructor. In Helen’s day it was a children’s club meant to feed the Ishikawa Club as the players aged and developed. (Ishikawa was not interested in teaching children.) Practices were held in her living room and dining room where the furniture had been removed and mats put down. By all accounts she was an excellent instructor, children loved her, and a handful of her earliest students are still practicing today more than a half century later.

MAYTT: You mentioned previously that Dr. Koiwai took a back seat when Ishikawa arrived at his club. What happened to him after Ishiakwa took over the club?

AB: With the success of the Ishikawa Judo Club caused the Philadelphia Judo Club to fall on hard times. The Chinatown Y closed, and the club moved to the Central Y at Broad and Arch. Dr. Kowai became more involved in judo administration than teaching, becoming the head of the Shufu Yudashakai, and the teaching at the Philadelphia Judo Club was taken over by its fifth head instructor Jack Hunter. Jack was a good judo instructor and a very well-liked man who remained in this position until the 1970s, when judo clubs were finding it difficult to compete with karate clubs, and so the Philadelphia club gradually folded.

MAYTT: I see. What were some of the factors that influenced both Mrs. Foos’ and Ishiakwa’s departure to Virginia Beach?

AB: Well, Helen Foos’s life changed greatly around the time. Her husband died after a long illness and she was now in charge of the family’s large coal business. She had also in that time become a devoted student of Edgar Cayce, the famous Sleeping Prophet, whose world headquarters the Edgar Cayce Institute was located in Virginia Beach, a place thought by Cayce to be the tip of Atlantis the Lost Continent. Helen decided to move both the family business and her home permanently to Virginia Beach to be near the Institute. When she made this decision she appealed to Ishikawa to move there with her, saying she would provide him with a house and build him a fine new judo club, and the two of them could live out their golden years together in financial comfort, both teaching judo at the club (her the kids, him the adults), and taking long walks on the beach with her dogs. That was in 1975 he accepted her offer.

MAYTT: What were the overall feelings of the club when Ishikawa broke the news to everyone that he was leaving for Virginia with Mrs. Foos?

AB: At his going away dinner he made a short speech in which he said that according to the (Chinese) calendar he was born in the year of the Snake, and that during his lifetime he had had two dreams which prominently featured snakes and foretold big life changes for him. I forget what he said the first one was, but the second one was about his move from Japan to Cuba, and that now he had had a third snake dream, and he felt he must obey it, and make the move to Virginia Beach. Needless to say, more than a few eyebrows were raised when he told this, but once again the snake dream proved correct. He and Helen Foos lived happily together in Virginia Beach until her death, at which time he returned to Japan, married again, and lived out his days to the age of ninty-one, playing go every waking moment almost to the end.

When he prepared to leave Philadelphia there was still the matter of the Ishikawa Judo Club to be disposed of. Over the years the club had moved from Broad and Race a few blocks north to Broad and Vine. The lease still had several years to run, plus there was the mat, a beautiful canvas-covered dream to play judo on, and the locker room equipment. These items he sold to one of the club’s black belts, a young man named Rusty Scott, a former student of Helen Foos, for a very modest amount, with one restriction — the club could no longer be called The Ishikawa Judo Club. He would have nothing more to do with it.

MAYTT: With Ishikawa now out of the city, how did Rusty Scott take to being the head instructor of the club?

AB By the time Rusty Scott took over the Philadelphia Judo Club, formerly at the Central Y, now had no students, no practice site, and was no longer functioning, so by agreement all around, the name for the location that had housed The Ishikawa Judo Club was formally changed to the Philadelphia Judo Club, and Rusty Scott, a shodan, became its sixth head instructor. The club dwindled. Rusty was newly married, plus he had a job promotion, he just didn’t have the time to devote to it. I did much of the teaching for the year or so he had it.

In 1978 or ‘79, he sold the club to Bill Gaffney, a Temple college student and brown belt at the time, who then became the seventh head instructor. Probably the best that can be said for that period was that Bill was living in a rowhouse in South Philadelphia. Randall “Tex” Cobb, the boxer, and I moved in with him and stayed there through the first winter of the famous Philadelphia Mafia Wars playing cards and drinking beer. When our girlfriends insisted we finally move out two more judo guys moved in, and I suppose you could say the house became a dormitory of sorts, which over time included several more people with a relationship to the club.

AB center right 1972
Art Bourgeau (center right) in 1972. Source: Art Bourgeau.

MAYTT: How long did Bill Gaffney stay as the head instructor of the club and who was the next person to take the mantle of head instructor?

AB: In 1981, Bill sold the club, got married, and moved to the Virgin Islands to become a bartender. The new owner was J.B. Gross, Kodokan godan, my best friend and workout partner throughout my judo career. He became the eighth head instructor. More about him later. During this period the landlord decided to sublet the space to an aikido club. There were hard feelings over this, but ultimately a shaky partnership based on sharing the space was worked out. When the lease was up, the landlord cheerfully kicked everyone out, and the club(s) again moved north. This time to Broad and Poplar, a neighborhood known for high street crime, hard drugs, gangs, prostitutes, car break-ins, and cat-sized rats. The space was over an auto repair shop so there were exhaust fumes to contend with, no heat, no air conditioning, dangerously outdated wiring, and a leaky roof.

That’s where I came in, in 1983, J.B. Gross told me, Art Bourgeau, godan, and the ninth head instructor, he was going to Nepal and would not be back. He handed me the keys, and said, “It’s yours now.” The beautiful mat from the Ishikawa era was in tatters, the club was in the heart of a ghetto, and the membership was down to one student, a high school freshman named Ned Fox, who all these years later is still playing and is a very capable black belt. When he demonstrated his kata for shodan he had a broken leg and did it in a cast from hip to foot. J.B. Gross had trained him well.

From there the only way to go was up. Over time the club grew and prospered. I was the head instructor for twenty-five years. Much of the success we had during those years was due to the great associates who also taught with me: Fred Hand, Rich Callahan, and Ray Huxen. They were magnets that drew other good judo players to the club and we prospered. Over my years as head instructor the club had another half dozen locations. At one point we were loosely partnered with Maxercise, owned by Steve Maxwell, Brazilian Ju Jitsu black belt and former National Wrestling Champion, but after a couple of years Steve left to live in his RV and roam the world, and sold Maxercise to one of our students John DiSimone, godan in judo and aikido and black belt in Brazilian Ju Jitsu. When I retired the Philadelphia Judo Club split off from Maxercise and moved again.

MAYTT: Currently, you have retired from running the Philadelphia Judo Club, with Ray Huxen at the helm of the club. Could you tell me about him?

The tenth head instructor is Ray Huxen, godan from Louisiana in judo, also a black belt in Brazilian Ju Jitsu, and a black belt in aikido. In my opinion the best of all of us with his vast knowledge of all three arts, and his own huge history of tournament competition. It was a lucky day for the Philadelphia Judo Club when he walked in the door. The club now owns its own building, in South Philadelphia this time, and it includes Brazilian Ju Jitsu as well as kettlebell training, children’s classes, and various other esoteric martial arts from time to time. Its umbrella name is Osagame Martial Arts, but it is still the home of The Philadelphia Judo Club – seventy-one years old this year, and still enduring.

 

 

J.B. Gross Kodokan 5th Dan

MAYTT: You mentioned previously that J.B. Gross was your best friend, long-time training partner, and eighth head of the club. Could you tell me more about him?

AB: Of all the instructors of The Philadelphia Judo Club the most colorful (with the possible exception of Ishikawa) was my best friend and workout partner J.B. Gross. No history of the club would be complete without a piece devoted solely to him – I’m just telling you! [Laughs]

The interesting part of his life began as a young Marine in Vietnam. Out on patrol with a small squad of six or eight, one of the Marines ahead of him stepped on a land mine and everyone in the patrol was either killed or horribly wounded. J.B. was one of the horribly wounded. He had multiple operations at the Philadelphia Navy Hospital where he was a patient for more than a year while they tried to repair his destroyed abdomen and legs. Even with their best efforts the doctors gave him very little hope to ever walk normally again, or to have any sort of life expectancy. The damage was just too great. They marveled that he had even managed to live.

Enter Ishikawa. After several months in the hospital J.B.’s casts were cut down to more manageable leg casts and he was allowed to leave the hospital during the daylight hours on crutches. As a boy in the Atlantic City area his local priest had brought him to Philadelphia a few times to learn some Saturday judo at the Ishikawa club. Somehow while laying in his hospital bed J.B. got the idea that if anyone could help him rehabilitate physically it would be Ishikawa, so one afternoon he struggled into a cab at the Navy Hospital and showed up at the club to beg for Ishikawa’s help.

Normally this probably would not have worked. Ishikawa was disdainful of injuries. If you were hurt, he didn’t want anything to do with you. The closest to sympathy from him was, “Go in the corner and do footsweeps.” End of discussion.

But something strange happened that day. Maybe J.B. just caught Ishikawa in a good mood, but he agreed to help him. The instructions were simple. J.B. would come to the dojo in the afternoons when no one else was around, and Ishikawa would give him things to do. Painful things. J.B. shed many tears in their months together, but progress was being made. The casts were cut down again, and J.B. went from crutches to a pair of canes to help him walk. At somewhere between six months and a year later J.B. not only could walk normally, but he was also healthy enough to put on a gi and begin to practice judo. That’s when we became friends and workout partners. Neither of us was very good, but we came in early, tried hard, and brought Ishikawa coffee, so over time the relationship I’ve been writing about developed.

MAYTT: It sounded like J.B. and Ishikawa had a special relationship because of that.

AB: Well, when Ishikawa announced his move to Virginia Beach some seven or eight years later J.B. had a small engraving added to one of his old canes. It read, “Because of you, Sensei, I don’t need this anymore.” I was with him when he gave it to Ishikawa. Ishikawa read the inscription. Then a funny expression came over his face. It looked very much like embarrassment, and his voice sounded odd when he said, “Yes, well, go get changed. Time for practice.”

I know J.B. was disappointed in his reaction. He told me so. In fact, he was in tears when he did. He felt personally betrayed that Ishikawa was moving to Virginia Beach, and he was right to expect, or at least hope for a moment of closure between them, considering what they’d experienced together, but J.B. shouldn’t have worried. The last time I saw Ishikawa before he moved back to Japan he returned to Philadelphia to visit the Liberty Bell Judo Tournament, founded and run by two of his oldest and most favorite students, Lou Moyerman, nanadan, and Joe Condello, rokudan. Ishikawa was sitting at a table when I walked in. He saw me and called out for me to come sit with him. It had been some time since we’d seen each other, and he had things he wanted to tell me. We sat for a half hour discussing the changes he was about to embark on, then when I got up to leave, the last thing he said to me was, “How is J.B.?”

I said, “He is fine, Sensei. He lives in Kathmandu now. He is the National Judo Coach for the Kingdom of Nepal. The Kodokan recently promoted him to godan.” Ishikawa listened to this quietly, nodding a couple of times, then he said, “You know, I have his cane.”

Because of their relationship Ishikawa was much different with J.B. than with me. He was more physical. A couple of examples: I remember one Friday night we finished practice then went out for beers and burgers (J.B. and me). We stayed out all night and showed up for practice on Saturday morning still half in the bag. The class was doing matwork, and J.B. was holding me down in kesa gatame, or the scarf hold, and fell asleep. Ishikawa saw this and came scurrying over and gave J.B. a good swift kick that almost separated his head from his shoulders. If it had been a field goal attempt it would have gone sixty yards. Needless to say, it woke him right up.

Another time we were practicing, in those days J.B. was working on osoto gari, this was before practice, and I don’t remember exactly what happened, but Ishikawa saw something, came onto the mat to correct J.B. During this period, he was not above giving J.B. contradictory information. One week he would tell him to do it this way; the next week he would tell him just the opposite. It was driving J.B. crazy. Anyway on this particular day J.B. must have said something in reply that didn’t set well with Ishikawa, because he then slugged J.B. in the jaw with his fist and knocked out one of his teeth, proving that Judo doesn’t always mean “gentle way.”

MAYTT: You mentioned previously that J.B. was saddened, to say the least, by Ishikawa’s decision to move to Virginia Beach. What did J.B. after Ishikawa’s departure?

AB: When Ishikawa left for Virginia Beach, J.B. decided to go to Japan. Ultimately, he stayed in Japan for almost five years, only returning to Philadelphia for two brief periods during those years. After all that time there he was a superb judo player, and unbelievably brutal to randori with. You could expect to bleed. All five of his black belt promotions had come from the Kodokan in Tokyo, the spiritual home of Judo. It takes a special player to be awarded a godan, fifth dan, from the Kodokan. A tough one.

While he was in Japan he also trained at Ishikawa’s old dojo, the Keishicho, the Tokyo Police Academy (J.B. always called it ‘the police pit,’ because of the savage fighters there.). At the Kodokan he studied for two years in organized classes with Kenji Shibayama, hachidan, considered at the time possibly the greatest matwork expert in the world, as well as doing daily randori with the visiting National or Olympic teams from the major judo nations around the world.

He spent a year at Tsukuba University in the mountains training with the University Judo team. There he underwent the grueling kangeiko or “winter training” that is meant to toughen both the mind and body — provided it doesn’t kill you. Most players only go through it once in their career. It is in January. I don’t remember if it is one week or two weeks. The heat is turned off, the windows open in the dojo. No sweats are allowed under the gi. Two practices a day: six to eight in the morning, six to eight in the evening. Morning practice begins with a two-mile run, outdoors, and barefoot. In those days we used to correspond by cassette tapes. His voice on the tape telling me about winter practice and how cold the wind was as it blew across Manchuria and the ocean and into the Japanese Alps where Tsukuba was located was the most tired I had ever heard him sound, and he was sick for weeks afterwards.

During one of his returns to Philadelphia from Japan was when he bought the club from Bill Gaffney, and he became the eighth head instructor for the Philadelphia Judo Club, but after all he’d gone through in Japan it wasn’t a good fit. No one would stick with him. However, when he turned the club over to me, he had produced two fine students: Ned Fox, who I mentioned earlier, and Rich Callahan, who at the time was in Japan at Tenri University, studying Judo of course.

This time when he left Philadelphia, Kathmandu was his destination. Once there he became the National Judo Coach for the Kingdom of Nepal. All of his students were either police or the paramilitary. He loved the place and thought he might live out his days there, but after a few years there was a revolution, and being an employee of the government, like Ishikawa in Cuba, he was ordered to leave the country.

Recently J.B.’s old student Rich Callahan was in Kathmandu, and he went to the National dojo where J.B.’s best student Dongol, a policeman, is now the head coach. Rich stayed at Dongol’s house and taught a class for the National Team in honor and tribute to J.B. Gross.

After being kicked out of Nepal J.B. went to Scotland to visit the great British judo champion Norman Foster, who along with Pat Burris from the USA, had been his sempai in Japan. There as a lark he walked the length of Scotland, most likely stopping at every pub and making friends along the way, then he returned to Philadelphia for a summer and we played golf together a couple of times a week, after which he set out on what would ultimately be his last trek, first to Hong Kong where he taught a few practices at Dave Starbrook’s club, another great British champion, who at the time was the only man to ever win medals in judo in two Olympics, then on to Borneo.

A paragraph from a 1994 letter he wrote from there reads: “I’m in Sarawak, Borneo. Although I have always wanted to come here, I am upset I did not bring my copy of Redmond O’Hanlon’s “Into the Heart of Borneo.” I remember his sage advice about what to do while being attacked by crocodiles — Thumbs in the eye they say. I leave for up country this week which will take 5 or 6 days by long boat, then switch to canoe for 3 days, after which I must hire a local guide to take me into Iban country, land of the headhunters. I can only hope the guide is loyal. Although my head has gotten me into trouble in the past, I am still quite attached to it. After a couple of weeks in the Iban hinterlands I shall return to the civilization of showers, chilled beer, a bed, and Pizza Hut. Until then it is “Sarawak Grossky” signing off. P.S. My thumbs are poised.”

He made it back safely that time. His date with death would not come for several more years. When it did, he would be living in Chaing Mai, Thailand, married to a local woman, and would die on the operating table while having an old judo knee injury repaired. He is buried in an ex-pats cemetery there and has a beautiful stone. Rich Callahan’s son made a trip to Chaing Mai and was kind enough to visit his grave and take a picture of it for us. Never the day goes by that Rich and I do not hear J.B.’s voice in our minds. Some days he is imparting Judo wisdom. Other days we’re just remembering one his great stories — and chuckling.

And there you have it — the history of The Philadelphia Judo Club!

MAYTT: Thank you, Art, for taking the time to talk to us about Ishikawa, the Philadelphia Judo Club, and J.B. Gross!

AB: It was my pleasure!

This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

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